The parents of Andres Guardado filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Los Angeles County and its sheriff's department Tuesday afternoon after waiting more than two months to get answers on their teen son's fatal shooting involving two sheriff's deputies.
Guardado, 18, was shot five times in the back June 18 while working as a security guard at an auto body shop in Gardena. The officers involved in his killing have been identified as Deputies Miguel Vega, who opened fire, and Chris Hernandez, who didn't shoot. Both are deputies at the sheriff's station in Compton, California.
Officers allegedly saw him with a gun; Guardado then ran away and officers chased him into an alley in the back of a building where he was killed, Capt. Kent Wegener, head of the homicide bureau, said in a press conference in June. While a 40-caliber semiautomatic pistol that hadn't been fired was found at the scene, authorities are unable to clarify whether Guardado ever aimed the gun at deputies.
Investigators have said there is no video of the shooting since deputies had no body cameras; they said a program to provide the cameras had been stalled for years. They also said officers were unable to find video footage of the shooting from surrounding businesses.
Nicholas Yoka, attorney for the Guardado family, said in a statement: "The Guardado family deserves their day in court and they are now taking the first step toward getting justice."
“By filing this lawsuit, we are not only committing to expose the truth surrounding the unjustified shooting of Andres Guardado," the statement said, "but seeking to prevent this type of tragedy from happening again."
The lawsuit comes amid new allegations from another Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy suggesting that the Compton station is home to the "Executioners," a deputy gang or clique.
Deputy Austreberto “Art” Gonzalez, who has worked at Compton for over five years, identified both Vega and Hernandez as "prospects" of the “Executioners" deputy gang during a deposition Aug. 11 for a case of police use of excessive force unrelated to Guardado's killing.
According to Gonzalez's testimony, which was obtained by NBC News, the "Executioners" use violence against other deputies and community members as well as illegal arrest quotas to increase their standing within the group.
Tom Yu, Hernandez's attorney, denied the allegations during a phone interview with NBC News. "The crew of Executioners do not exist. It's made up by him," he said, adding that Gonzalez's "allegations will be flushed out during discovery and the truth will prevail."
Adam Marangell, Vega's attorney, labeled Gonzalez's allegation that Vega "was a prospective member of some sort of station clique" as "absolutely false" in a statement to NBC News. Marangell also said the Guardado's "lawsuit is filled with reckless and erroneous allegations" and that Vega "looks forward to the actual facts of this matter being made public."
Villanueva recently announced an effort to crack down on alleged deputy cliques, potentially involving the suspension and firing of more than two dozen deputies at Compton and East Los Angeles stations.
While Villanueva said in his announcement there's little evidence to support claims that deputy subgroups are behaving as gangs or hurting the public, Matthew Burson at the sheriff's department is leading the charge against alleged deputy subgroups — such as Vikings, Reapers, Regulators, Little Devils, Cowboys, 2,000 and 3,000 Boys, Jump Out Boys, Banditos and Executioners — that he said are commonly referred to as deputy gangs.
Max Huntsman, Los Angeles County's inspector general, said deputy gangs have long been a problem and encouraged Villanueva to do more to discourage deputies from joining them, NBC's Los Angeles station KNBC reported.
Los Angeles County has paid out about $55 million in settlements in cases involving allegations that sheriff's deputies belong to secret societies, according to records obtained by the Los Angeles Times.
Attorney John Sweeney told NBC News he first heard of the "Executioners" when he represented the family of Donta Taylor, a 31-year-old Black man who was fatally shot by Compton Sheriff's Deputies Mizrain Orrego and Samuel Aldama on August 2016.
Aldama admitted to having a skull wearing a military helmet with the letters “CPT,” for Compton, emerging from flames and carrying a rifle tattooed on his calf, according to excerpts of his deposition in Taylor’s case. While Aldama never used the word "Executioners," or explicitly admitted affiliation, he claimed that about 20 other deputies at Compton had the same tattoo, according to the lawsuit. Aldama denied being part of a deputy clique during his deposition.
A judge in Taylor's case ordered the sheriff’s department to reveal whether they knew of other deputies sporting matching skull tattoos at Compton. But the Los Angeles County settled the case for $7 million before any information surfaced.
Sweeney said that while working on Taylor's case, he found out that both Orrego and Aldama were involved in the arrest of another young Black man, Sheldon Lockett, in January 2016. Sweeney helped Lockett file an excessive force lawsuit against the sheriff’s department in July 2018.
Orrego and Aldama’s attorneys did not immediately respond to NBC News’ request for comment.
Sweeney learned of an allegation from Gonzalez linking the skull tattoo to the "Executioners" while working on Lockett's case. Gonzalez filed a claim for damages against Los Angeles County in June 23 alleging that the Compton station is "permeated by a violent deputy gang which calls itself 'The Executioners'" with members sporting matching tattoos "consisting of a skull with Nazi imagery, holding an AK-47."
Gonzalez's claims resurfaced Aug. 11 during a deposition related to Lockett's case. During the deposition, Sweeney asked Gonzalez if he knew whether the deputies involved in Guardado's shooting were "inked members or prospects" of the "Executioners."
"Prospects," Gonzalez responded.
"He also said there's 78 deputies assigned to the Compton station. He said about 20 are inked members of the gang and there are about 20 prospects," meaning that about half of the station is "controlled" by "Executioners," Sweeney said. "In my opinion, the prospects may be more violent than the actual gang members, because they're trying to show their worthiness to the gang."
Gonzalez's allegations were referenced in a recent letter from Compton City Attorney Damon Brown requesting Attorney General William Barr, U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California Nicola Hanna and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra investigate claims of "a pattern and practice of pervasive federal civil rights violations by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department."
Attorneys for the Guardado family allege that Sheriff Alex Villanueva, his sheriff's department and the county "knew about deputy gangs" and were aware that Vega and Hernandez had possible affiliations "with at least one of these Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department gangs including, but not limited to" the "Executioners" and the "3,000 Boys," they said in a statement.
They also believe that both deputies "were possibly acting in connection and in agreement with these other gang members" on the day of Guardado's death.
In response to the allegations, the sheriff's department told NBC News in an email that it "has not had an opportunity to review the complaint, and does not comment on pending litigation.”
The homicide investigation to determine if criminal charges should be filed against Vega and Hernandez in Guardado's fatal shooting remains ongoing. The FBI and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department have not yet said whether the deputies followed appropriate policies on the night of Guardado's killing.