HAWAIIAN GARDENS — City officials, concerned about tense relations with the Sheriff's Department, will find out this week if the community's lone youth-gang counselor will face charges stemming from a scuffle with deputies three weeks ago.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department is expected to complete an investigation that will determine not only whether it will seek charges against the counselor for interfering with an arrest, but also whether its own deputies acted improperly.
The incident has angered officials of this predominantly Latino city, who say Hawaiian Gardens has a long history of problems with the Lakewood Sheriff's Station.
"I am sad and pessimistic about the future of law enforcement in this city," said Leonard Chaidez, chairman of the city's Public Safety Commission and a member of an ad hoc committee set up last year to improve relations with the Sheriff's Department. "I thought things might be better, but now it seems like they have gone the other way."
At the center of the dispute is Ernie Vargas, 37, director of the city's Youth Gang Diversion program, who was arrested Aug. 30 for interfering with another arrest.
According to a sheriff's report, Vargas was preparing for a baseball game in a park when he saw two deputies chase a 30-year-old Hawaiian Gardens man down a residential street. Vargas ran after the deputies, who pursued the suspect into a house on Devlin Avenue, brought him into the front yard and arrested him for being under the influence of an opiate and resisting arrest, the report said.
'Aggressive Verbal Argument'
Vargas, the report said, yelled at the deputies and incited a crowd of "about 100-150 citizens (who) started to surround us."
After what the report called an "aggressive verbal argument" between Vargas and Deputy Kevin Lloyd, the gang counselor was arrested for interfering with an arrest. He was later released.
Two witnesses, Jessie Gaeta and Betty Meyez, said in interviews with The Times that Lloyd, a six-year veteran of the Sheriff's Department, knocked Vargas to the ground and shouted obscenities at him.
Lakewood Sheriff's Capt. Elmer Omohundro said an investigation of the incident will be finished later this week. Then sheriff's officials will decide whether to file charges against Vargas and whether to take disciplinary action against the arresting officers, Lloyd and Deputy Robert Horner.
Omohundro said several witnesses have called him to complain that the deputies used excessive force against Vargas.
"Witnesses claim that Ernie was beaten to (the) ground, but I can't believe that," Omohundro said. "I was quite surprised to hear that something like this would happen to Ernie. He knows better than to get involved in an arrest."
But Vargas, who said he followed the deputies to see how they would handle an arrest, maintains that the sheriff's report is incorrect. He said he was pushed to the ground without provocation and was verbally harassed.
Some city officials say the incident has jeopardized the entire gang diversion program.
"This has torn the heck out of our gang program," said Councilman Donald Schultze. "We have invested one year in this program, and it's gone down the tubes in five minutes. What will the Sheriff's Department gain by pressing charges against Ernie? He is not a criminal. He is a good example for our kids."
Vargas says the incident may ruin his credibility as a gang counselor. Since 1986, he has been teaching an anti-gang program to fifth- and sixth-graders at Hawaiian Gardens' three elementary schools. As part of the Gang Youth Diversion program, Vargas also counsels junior high and high school students as well as adults.
"I've already had little kids come up to me and ask me, 'Have you gone to jail, Mr. Vargas?,' " he said. "After all I've taught them about how the (deputies) are here to protect us . . . how do you explain all this to a 5-year-old?"
Vice Mayor Kathleen Navejas said the city might consider filing a lawsuit against the Sheriff's Department "for substandard service to Hawaiian Gardens." She also suggested putting on the ballot a proposal to either contract with another sheriff's station or start a city police department--two options that have been discussed in the last year.
"This mess has opened a wound, and it's going to be a long time before people forget," Navejas said. "There's enough people in this city that are clearly disgusted with (sheriff's) services being provided here."
Navejas says antagonism has existed between some residents and sheriff's deputies ever since the city incorporated in 1964.
"We've been treated like second-class citizens almost from the start," Navejas said. "Because we are a poorer city than the others, the Sheriff's Department thinks it can get away with anything in Hawaiian Gardens. Well, this time they've gone too far."
Besides Hawaiian Gardens, the Lakewood Sheriff's Station serves Cerritos, Artesia, Bellflower, Lakewood and Paramount.