After four years as Los Angeles County sheriff, Alex Villanueva’s view of things has crystallized into a simple idea: He knows best how to save the county — and you’re either on board with him or part of the problem.
It is an approach that, perhaps not surprisingly, has left Villanueva fighting battles on multiple fronts and, with a couple of weeks before election day, fighting for his political survival.
He’s locked in a very public war with the county’s Board of Supervisors, which controls his $3.8-billion budget, as well as its “attack dogs” — Villanueva’s name for the inspector general and Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission — over their attempts to check his authority.
And he eagerly joined an effort to kick the county’s district attorney from office, saying the prosecutor is soft on crime. After relying on progressive voters to carry him to his unlikely victory in 2018, he now mocks the “Democratic party apparatus” as the “woke left” he believes to be at the heart of the county’s problems.
To Villanueva, many journalists — primarily those at The Times — are carrying water for his critics and are not to be trusted.
His me-versus-the-world lens has taken an unmistakable toll.
He’s behind in the polls, and his disapproval numbers are high. And, tellingly, in the wake of his tumultuous first term is a trail of fractured relationships. Many onetime allies, aides and supporters have fallen out with him; some have accused him of abusing his power in one way or another. A few have filed lawsuits against their former boss.
To the 59-year-old sheriff, he’s the one who has been betrayed and maligned.
“If you look at the language and the vitriol coming from the political establishment, you’d think I’m slaying children and drinking their blood,” Villanueva told The Times. “How do you establish a working relationship with someone who’s kicking you in the teeth on a regular basis?”
Where others see four years of turmoil, Villanueva sees accomplishments.
He kicked federal immigration agents out of the county jails, making good on one of his main campaign promises.
He takes credit for outfitting deputies with body-worn cameras that record shootings and other encounters. Cameras were rolled out under Villanueva, but the plan was in the works before he was elected.
And he says he’s made the department’s process for promoting people fair and equitable. It is a claim with which many in the department disagree.
This time around, Villanueva is campaigning on a promise to “make L.A. livable again.” He is portraying himself as a lone crusader against the “wokeism” of liberal elected officials and voters that he says is to blame for the most pressing problems facing the nation’s most populous county.
The homelessness crisis, he says, is the result of county supervisors and Los Angeles city officials handcuffing law enforcement from “regulating public space” with their permissive approach to the unhoused. The progressive policies of Dist. Atty. George Gascón, meanwhile, have “left a lot of criminals out there.”
Last year, he showed up to the Venice Boardwalk in a cowboy hat — with television cameras in tow — then claimed credit for clearing homeless encampments there. Critics saw the move as a publicity stunt that illustrated how he oversimplified a complicated problem while framing himself as the hero.
It’s not entirely smoke and mirrors, though.
Acting Capt. Geoffrey Deedrick, who heads the Homeless Outreach Services Team, said Villanueva increased his team’s staffing from four deputies to 14 — and then again to 26.
“He basically was a champion of everything we do,” Deedrick said.
Villanueva takes no responsibility for either violent crime or homelessness, despite having been sheriff the last four years as both worsened.
Another term in office, he tells voters, will give him more time to fix what he sees as the errors of the Board of Supervisors and Gascón.
“As if I didn’t have enough work,” he said, “they created even more work on top of what we’re already doing.”
Villanueva, dressed in dark blue jeans and a tight black shirt, sat down with The Times on Oct. 6 at his campaign headquarters in Santa Fe Springs.
There is no indication the building on an industrial street is home base for a major political campaign. The sheriff’s campaign manager, Javier Gonzalez, said the initial concern was attracting protesters, “but when they couldn’t muster more than three people, we stopped worrying about it.”
Inside, talking points in English and Spanish are posted on the wall for phone bankers: “The Political Establishment is running a smear campaign against Sheriff Villanueva.” “Cutting funds is part of a sabotage by corrupt politicians.” “They don’t like his integrity and independence.”
Asked what shaped his leadership style, Villanueva pointed to a lesson he learned as a child.
Villanueva grew up in the 1970s in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. His parents, who ran a print shop, struggled to make ends meet and at times didn’t have enough money to pay their children’s tuition at a Catholic school. On those occasions, Villanueva said, he and his siblings were taken out of class and forced to sit in the library.
But, as Villanueva tells it, after John Paul II was elected Pope and said that finances should not be a barrier to Catholic education, his mom went to the administration and demanded that her children be allowed back into class.
“It just showed me how to be an advocate. Sometimes you gotta call out, speak truth to power,” he said. “That’s what my mom did. That’s what I’ve done my entire career.”
He recalled that two years after becoming a deputy, he walked into a commander’s office with a proposal to ban smoking in the jails. The commander initially balked, but the ban went into effect, he said.
In 2004, as a sergeant, he sent a letter to chiefs and commanders accusing them of attempting to block Latinos, including himself, from promoting higher in the department.
The move made an impression on John Satterfield, a deputy at the time.
“I really respected the courage it took,” Satterfield said. The men later worked together as sergeants in the training bureau and got to know each other better.
Today, as his chief of staff, Satterfield is Villanueva’s right hand. He said he fields late-night phone calls one or two times a week from the sheriff with an idea, big or small.
“And then the next morning, we’re off to the races making this happen,” Satterfield said.
As an illustration of this he pointed to Operation Homebound, a program where deputies administered COVID-19 vaccines to people unable to leave their homes. He declined to give other examples, citing “privileged communications” between an executive and his chief of staff.
“He is by far the best sheriff I’ve ever worked for,” Satterfield said. “His decisions are driven by what is best for the community, what is best for our workforce. And he really doesn’t get wrapped up in the ‘What’s best for the political side of things.’”
Villanueva was endorsed for reelection by the two major labor unions that represent the department’s deputies and mid-level supervisors. Rank-and-file deputies appreciated him for refusing to enforce the county’s COVID-19 vaccine requirement and his generally pro-deputy stance.
Past sheriffs have cooperated with the Board of Supervisors. But Villanueva has turned would-be partners into pitted enemies.
He contends they have orchestrated an effort to sabotage him through a hiring freeze and budget constraints.
His hostility for the Civilian Oversight Commission, whose members the supervisors appoint to keep tabs on the Sheriff’s Department, and Inspector General Max Huntsman, has been even more uninhibited. Subpoenas to testify before the commission have gone unheeded. Huntsman has been the subject of two criminal investigations initiated by the department and barred from setting foot on department property.
The experience of battling Villanueva was so fraught the supervisors have put on the upcoming ballot a proposal that would give the board the power to remove a sitting sheriff from office.
Although less apparent publicly, Villanueva also has battled some who work for him.
In interviews with more than a dozen people who have worked with Villanueva, a portrait emerged of a man laser focused on who is with and against him. Relationships are transactions, and his currency is loyalty.
Matt Rodriguez, who ran for sheriff against Villanueva and has known him for decades, ticked off a list of names of once-close advisors.
“Every single one of them had a falling out with him,” he said.
They included a politically connected aide who helped campaign to get him into office. A sergeant and longtime friend who was standing on stage, alongside Villanueva and his family, when the sheriff was sworn in. And a former chief on Villanueva’s transition team who ended up running against him for sheriff.
One of them, former Undersheriff Ray Leyva, testified in a 2019 deposition that he told Villanueva “many times” that he couldn’t do things the way Villanueva wanted to do them. He said they disagreed over how the sheriff used “arbitrary” benchmarks to decide on promotions and Carl Mandoyan, a deputy fired over allegations of domestic abuse and dishonesty who Villanueva rehired illegally.
Leyva was fired less than four months on the job as Villanueva’s second-in-command.
“I believed that he was tired of me trying to keep him focused and working within policy and procedures, and he was tired of listening to me constantly saying, ‘You know, we can’t do it that way,’” Leyva said in the deposition.
What had been honest counsel to Leyva was betrayal to Villanueva.
“Probably the most disappointing one of all is Ray Leyva,” Villanueva said when asked about relationships that have soured while he’s been sheriff. “When he became the undersheriff, he actually ended up stabbing us in the back. I just didn’t see that coming. I was shocked.”
On Leyva’s firing, Villanueva said: “This is something that I’ve done that no other sheriff has ever had to do before. I’ve terminated an undersheriff. I’ve demoted [an] assistant sheriff, demoted chiefs. I’ve terminated captains. In the past, once you hit the rank of captain, it was like you were untouchable, just like the mafia.”
Leyva died last week after a long illness. He was unavailable to comment before he passed away.
As sheriff, Villanueva said, he’s been left to wonder whether purported allies have ulterior agendas.
“That’s the difficulty everybody has when you get into a position of authority,” he said. He added that he has friends both inside and outside the department, although he referenced only Satterfield.
“People that I know that have been friends for a long time say, ‘Man, you have not changed. You’re just the same person as before.’ Which is always my goal. I don’t want to have this job change who I am,” Villanueva said.
A colleague who has known the sheriff for years said Villanueva has changed.
When Villanueva sought a campaign donation, the person, who requested anonymity over concerns he would face retaliation for his comments, demurred, explaining he couldn’t contribute because of his involvement in a nonprofit group that doesn’t support political candidates.
“He goes, ‘I understand that, I know … If you give me less than $100, nobody will know,’” the source said.
“My response was, ‘Alex, I’ll know.’”
It was a far cry from the Villanueva the source had known years earlier, who steered him away from making a donation to former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka’s Gardena mayoral campaign.
“If that’s how you want to get promoted, because you’re paying to play, go ahead,” the source recalled Villanueva saying.
Villanueva denied the claim, saying the source must have “an axe to grind.”
“I don’t solicit donations,” the sheriff said. “We invite people to fundraisers. I don’t solicit.”
Former Asst. Sheriff Bob Olmsted, who did a stint running the jails for Villanueva, recalled how, early on in his term, Villanueva transferred one of Olmsted’s top commanders.
“I go: ‘Why are you moving him? He’s the backbone. This is the guy I need,’” Olmsted recounted saying to Villanueva. The sheriff, he said, replied: “Nope, I don’t like him.”
“Everything is about him,” Olmsted said. “I don’t think he’s got the ultimate goal of leading. I wouldn’t follow him. I wouldn’t follow him at all in a battle. I think he’s just got his priorities backwards.”
Villanueva said he doesn’t “make personnel decisions based on whether I like or dislike someone. It’s whether they’re doing the job and they’re carrying out my vision for the department.”
Sgt. Vanessa Chow tried to follow Villanueva’s lead and came away feeling unsettled.
She had been working as the department’s liaison with the Board of Supervisors, when, in 2019, she was invited by the sheriff to have lunch at El Gallo Grill in East L.A.
He told her he’d discovered his close aides were withholding information from him and instructed that, going forward, she should communicate with him directly, Chow recalled.
Their meeting, which she said Villanueva told her to keep under wraps, was the beginning of what turned into a close working relationship.
Over time, she grew increasingly troubled by requests the sheriff made.
Late one night in June 2020, Chow said Villanueva asked her to send internal budget documents to Mandoyan, who was ousted again from the department by a judge who found Villanueva didn’t have the authority to rehire him.
To Chow, who surmised Mandoyan still was a heavy influence on the sheriff’s decision making, the order felt inappropriate, so she sent him only publicly available budget documents, according to her and emails reviewed by The Times.
While Mandoyan remains a friend, Villanueva said, he has “zero influence.” The sheriff said, “No one has sent budget documents to Carl.”
Mandoyan said that Chow shared the publicly available materials with him, but “it had nothing to do with Alex.” Mandoyan said he has no influence on Villanueva’s decisions and hasn’t spoken with him in about a month and a half, “maybe even longer.”
Chow said Villanueva also asked her to dig into the head of a Venice nonprofit who had publicly slammed his photo op with the department’s homeless outreach team on the Venice Boardwalk.
“We need to know everything about this idiot and where her clinic is getting money,” he texted Chow about Elizabeth Benson Forer, the head of the Venice Family Clinic, along with an article quoting her criticism, according to a screenshot reviewed by The Times.
Villanueva denied asking people to look into Forer, claiming “it’s just our campaign is doing their due diligence.”
Chow said she never worked for Villanueva’s campaign.
She said Villanueva also wanted to know who planned to run against him — and who was recruiting candidates.
“Barf,” he texted when she notified him one internal candidate, Eric Strong, had filed paperwork to run.
In 2020, Villanueva announced plans to close down two patrol stations, a drastic move that would have affected public safety.
He quickly walked back the idea, but Chow said it had been a ruse from the get go. The announcement, she said, was drummed up to get residents upset so they’d flood the Board of Supervisors with angry calls demanding they increase the department’s budget.
Villanueva denied that it was a ruse and said he had intended to follow through.
He appeared to try the same ploy again a few months ago when he threatened to quit patrolling Metro’s transit system unless the agency’s board gave him full control over security on the sprawling network of trains and buses. His deadline came and went — and he never pulled deputies off the Metro system.
Chow, who is on medical leave, eventually filed a lawsuit against the county, alleging she faced retaliation after speaking out about illegal conduct in the department. The lawsuit, which says the “stress from the retaliation” has contributed to “severe medical conditions including temporary lower body paralysis and cancer,” is ongoing.
Chow has read statements the sheriff has released in recent weeks saying she and others in the department suing him are spewing “outright lies.”
“If he’s willing to … lie about his own employees,” Chow said, “can the public really trust that he won’t do the same to them?”
Harassment and retaliation lawsuits are not uncommon in law enforcement departments. But the list of employees who have filed lawsuits against the department and Villanueva is lengthy, and the allegations are often against the sheriff himself.
Three high-ranking officials claim he covered up an incident in which a deputy kneeled on the head of a handcuffed inmate — and then threw them under the bus for it.
Two people who testified at Civilian Oversight Commission hearings investigating gang-like groups of deputies in the department reported that they were later followed or surveilled by unmarked law enforcement cars, according to Bert Deixler, the attorney leading the probe. He said others backed out of testifying, citing a fear of retaliation.
Villanueva pointed to the lawsuits as evidence that there’s no culture of fear in the department’s ranks.
“Look at how many people are suing us,” Villanueva said. “Do they seem to be afraid?”
Lt. Larry Waldie Jr., who is suing over claims of retaliation he allegedly suffered after speaking out about the Executioners deputy gang at the Compton sheriff’s station, described Villanueva as “lawless.”
“I feel embarrassed to wear my uniform right now,” Waldie said.
To Villanueva, all the litigation, as well as the senior officials who have gone on medical leave, are just more examples of him being wronged by ingrates. He accused the majority of them of faking their injuries to buy time until after the election.
“They’re milking it out, waiting to see what happens,” Villanueva said. “That is a crowd that I want to see leave the department cause they’re the ones that created all the problems.”
The lawsuits seemed to hit him particularly hard, especially the ones filed by people he promoted.
“I gave them the opportunity for career advancement, promoted them. I made them financially secure for the rest of their lives,” he said. “And they turn around and sue me.”