Lawsuit Reveals Details of LASD Deputy Shooting

Cerise Castle

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An LASD vehicle idles with its light-bar on. (Photo: Jason Lawrence, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

This story was published in partnership with Los Angeles Public Press.

CONTENT WARNING: The following article includes a graphic photo of an open wound on the leg of a Los Angeles Sheriff’s deputy. Please exercise extreme caution and self-care if you choose to view this image.

Internal investigatory files from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department obtained through a lawsuit filed by Knock LA reveal more details surrounding an incident where a deputy shot off another deputy’s gang tattoo during a camping trip. 

In the early hours of Sunday October 18, 2015, Wyatt Waldron shot Travis Jonsen during a group overnight at the Dove Springs desert campground area in Kern County, according to the released internal records. The records confirm at least 22 other men, all who were then-current or former Palmdale station deputy sheriffs, were also on the trip. Neither Waldron nor Jonsen responded to a request for comment. 

The incident caught the attention of the LA County Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission following Knock LA’s reporting. In February of 2023, the commission published a report investigating deputy gangs in LASD that asserted the shooting was in “retaliation for an act objected to by the Cowboys.” 

The Antelope Valley has spawned at least two deputy gangs, the Cowboys and the Rattlesnakes.

Jonsen was shot in the ankle through his tattoo; a skull wearing a cowboy hat positioned in front of playing cards. Beneath the skull is a roll of parchment with the calligraphy letters L and A, and the number 35. Deputy gang tattoos are traditionally numbered in the sequential order they are received.

Jonsen was transported to the Antelope Valley Medical Center in a Toyota Tundra pickup truck by Waldron and two other deputies, according to internal LASD records. He was treated for a gunshot wound through his ankle that shattered two bones. In the day prior, Waldron and Jonsen had spent the day in the desert drinking and participating in target practice. 

Most of them attended similar camping trips to the same area in years past with the same or similar group of employees, according to LASD records.

More than 550 pages of investigative documents released through the lawsuit include interviews, incident reports and photos related to the shooting. They represent the official record of what happened: an accidental discharge of a handgun by a drunk deputy. They are the basis by which the Sheriff’s Department investigated, and disciplined actions taken by department personnel.

But four sources within LASD with intimate knowledge of the incident say something much more sinister occurred: Jonsen was held down by a group of deputies while Waldron fired off several rounds of his weapon and attempted to burn the design off of Jonsen’s ankle with the hot barrel of the gun. When he was unable to, Waldron fired the gun directly at Jonsen’s tattoo. The tattoo was shot off because an unauthorized change had been made to the design: all deputy gang tattoo changes must be cleared with deputy gang leadership, according to sources within the Sheriff’s Department.

A deputy gang tattoo after another Los Angeles Sheriff’s Deputy attempted to shoot it off. (Photo: Knock LA)

Nowhere in the reams of county documents is any reference to the tattoo, or to deputy gangs. Instead, the hundreds of pages conclude the shooting was an “unintentional” accident. 

“Once the Department became aware of the incident an internal investigation was initiated and the appropriate administrative action was taken,” LASD said in a statement to Los Angeles Public Press. “The department is actively addressing the issue of deputy gangs and holding personnel accountable for misconduct affiliated with deputy gangs.”

Knock LA was forced to sue LA County for these records when the Sheriff’s Department illegally refused to release the documents following an initial request in April of 2022. The lawsuit was filed in November of 2022, and in August of 2023, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Curtis A. Kin rejected all of the Sheriff’s Department’s arguments and ordered the department to disclose the records. The Sheriff’s Department finally sent the records to Knock LA in mid-December 2023, nearly two years after this reporter first asked for the records.  

Lawyers representing LA County argued that the Sheriff’s Department was not required to disclose the records because the reporter requesting the documents had not personally witnessed the shooting, and also because the shooting was found by the Sheriff’s Department to be an accident. These arguments were disposed of based on California’s Right to Know Act. 

That law stems from 2018’s SB 1421, which confirms the public’s right to see records related to when a police officer fires a gun, used force resulting in physical injury or death, lied in an investigation, or committed misconduct or sexual assault. 

“There’s nothing in the law allowing police to keep shootings secret by labeling them as accidental and nothing in the law saying someone has to witness a police shooting to get records of the shooting,” said Susan E. Seager, a UC Irvine law professor whose Press Freedom Project represented Knock LA in the lawsuit. 

The Investigation

Hours after the shooting occurred, LASD’s Internal Affairs Bureau began to examine the incident in coordination with the Kern County Sheriff’s Department. During interviews with investigators, the statements made by witnesses who had attended the camping trip attendees were inconsistent. 

In their initial interviews, Waldron and Jonsen initially lied to investigators about the amount of alcohol they had consumed prior to the shooting. Several other witnesses who were on the camping trip also confirmed to investigators that both were observed drinking.

In a subsequent interview with investigators, Waldron said he did not think about how much he had to drink until the day after the incident, and after his interview with the investigators. He reported drinking an estimated six beers and three Jack Daniel’s and Coke doubles. 

“I finished the last beer that I drank, probably within three minutes of the incident,” he said. 

Waldron’s blood alcohol concentration was later estimated to be up to .25% at the time of the shooting by an LASD Senior Criminologist. County documents indicate that Waldron had consumed at least nine drinks that evening, resulting in severe impairment at the time of the shooting.

Waldron is a US Marine Corps veteran who was awarded the Silver Star. When he was interviewed, he told LASD investigators he knew his way around firearms. Speaking to an LASD investigator, Waldron said: “I’ve been handling firearms since I was probably 13 years old. I know safety rules. I know to keep my fingers away from the trigger.” 

But in his initial interview with the investigating Kern County sheriff’s deputy the day of the shooting, his explanation for the supposed accidental discharge consisted of a myriad of basic gun safety mistakes: handling guns while drinking, leaving the firearm in the open unattended for several hours, and not checking to see if the firearm was loaded before handling it again. 

“I’m actually embarrassed to say but [I am] a former Marine, did three combat tours in Iraq and I mean super, super careful typically with firearms,” he told the Kern County deputy.

Waldron and Jonsen told investigators that the two of them were “good friends.” They claimed to have been alone at the time of the shooting, although another witness the sheriff’s department interviewed placed himself just feet away at the time of discharge, and others said they saw people nearby. Jonsen himself initially reported others being nearby when the gun was fired. 

Two deputies drove Waldron and Jonsen to Antelope Valley Medical Medical Center in a third deputy’s Toyota Tundra. When the owner of the truck was interviewed by LASD investigators a couple of months after the shooting, he emphasized that he had sold the truck and was no longer in possession of it.

In their interviews with an internal affairs investigator, the deputies claimed that the trip was for “team building” and “camaraderie,” often in the same sentence. The word “camaraderie” is regularly invoked by members of other deputy gangs to describe their activities – including by Ron Hernandez, President of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs (ALADS), an alleged tattooed member of the Pirates deputy gang. 

Records also show former deputy Anthony Paez was at the gathering. At the time of the Dove Springs camping trip, Paez had already been fired for being a deputy gang member. Paez is one of seven known deputies fired for deputy gang membership in the history of LASD, according to LASD records. He did not respond to a request for comment for this story. 

At the time of the desert gathering, Paez had been criminally charged and awaiting trial for two counts of perjury, filing a false report, conspiracy to obstruct justice, and peace officer altering evidence stemming from a 2011 incident where Paez and another deputy were caught on video planting guns at a South L.A. marijuana dispensary to justify making an arrest. Paez also shot and killed Arturo Cabrales, a 22-year-old father, in March of 2012. 

Department policy forbids employees from socializing with people who “are under criminal investigation or indictment,” or “have pending criminal charges filed against them.” Despite this, no attendees were disciplined for fraternizing with Paez during the trip, including Thomas Inocente, assigned to Operation Safe Streets Bureau, who attended the camping trip.

At no point in the released records is there any indication investigators asked any attendees if any of them had any tattoos, or if they were affiliated with any deputy gangs. 

Inspector General Takes A Second Look

Waldron was found to have violated department procedures for firearms safety, obedience to laws and regulations, and not promptly reporting the discharge to his supervisor. He was initially given a 25-day suspension, which was later reduced to a 10 days suspension served between December 14-23, 2016, according to a letter to Waldron detailing his discipline for the shooting. 

Sources within LASD say Jonsen took a medical retirement in 2020. According to Transparent California, he received an annual disability pension, totaling $56,166 in 2022. He is also the son of Bob Jonsen, the current sheriff of Santa Clara County and a former captain of the Lancaster sheriff’s station. Bob Jonsen is also alleged to be a member of the Grim Reapers deputy gang according to several sources, which he has denied.

The criminal charges against Paez were dropped in 2019 by then-LA County District Attorney Jackie Lacey. Paez eventually won his job back, along with back pay with interest. He left the department in 2021.  

The L.A. County Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released a report on the investigation into the shooting in February 2021, and found several issues with the manner in which it was carried out. The OIG anonymized Waldron’s name as “Gamma” in the report, though the details are consistent with the circumstances of the Dove Springs incident. The OIG eventually concluded that deputy ‘Gamma’ “admitted to Internal Affairs Bureau investigators he had provided false statements to the criminal investigator who had investigated the shooting.”

The OIG found that, although the lies were reported to the unit commander, the commander never requested an additional investigation or criminal inquiry into the known false statements.

“What is missing here, along with every other deputy gang investigation, is an actual investigation. That was present here, and is present in every investigation here, and is present in every investigation from McDonnell to Villanueva to Luna,” Inspector General Max Huntsman told Los Angeles Public Press

Despite all of this, Waldron was promoted to sergeant under Sheriff Alex Villanueva in 2021. 

“We identified a repeated failure to ask probing questions,” said Huntsman. “If you don’t have fundamental building blocks, there will be those concerns of: ‘Are you promoting the right people?’”

During the promotion process, prospective deputies take the sergeant’s exam and high scorers are placed on a shortlist for an elevation in rank and assessed for promotability by the Sheriff or their representative. The assessment includes a review of the candidate’s personnel file, which includes information on internal investigations and policy violations. Promotions are carried out with the sheriff’s approval. 

These newly revealed documents show that Villanueva, now a candidate for the Board of Supervisors, had evidence available to him that a deputy fraternized with at least one known deputy gang member and approved his promotion. 

In response to an inquiry into why Waldron was promoted and his knowledge of the shooting at the time of the promotion, Villanueva told Los Angeles Public Press: “The event you’re inquiring about occurred early in the McDonnell administration and is covered by POBR [Peace Officer’s Bill of Rights], therefor (sic) it would be inappropriate to comment on it. Promotions to the rank of sergeant were done by a division chiefs panel and did not involve the sheriff during my administration.” 

When asked to clarify if that meant he had no knowledge of who was promoted during his term, he said: “It’s called delegation of authority, a necessity in any organization the size of the LASD.”

Villanueva is expected to testify before the department’s Civilian Oversight Commission on January 12 about deputy gangs. 

The department’s investigation into the shooting was compromised from the beginning: the lack of questions around Jonsen’s tattoo, deputy gangs, and failure to discipline telling lies in a criminal investigation are consistent with the department’s well-documented pattern covering up deputy misconduct, and failing to hold employees accountable for criminal acts. 

“Over and over again former Sheriff Villanueva made it clear that he did not want anybody in internal affairs or the Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau (ICIB) asking about gang affiliation,” said Sean Kennedy, chair of the commission to Los Angeles Public Press. “This sounds like another example of that where they’re confronted with pretty clear evidence that there is a gang and there is substantial misconduct, and yet they don’t pursue that information.”

The agreement to testify at the hearing comes after years of legal wrangling by Villanueva to resist multiple subpoenas ordering his testimony on the subject, and came days after a county judge scheduled a hearing to decide whether to order him to comply with the commission’s subpoenas.

This article was produced with support from Professor Susan E. Seager, a UC Irvine adjunct law professor who directs the school’s Press Freedom Project, and her law students who filed the lawsuit and argued for release of the records as part of the Project’s mission to provide free legal services to independent journalists and non-profit news organizations.

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2024-01-10 21:28:42 , Knock LA

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