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COLUMN ONE

The Secret Society Among Lawmen

Despite setbacks in court and superiors' disapproval, a tattooed subculture of L.A. County sheriff's deputies is rising again. Are members macho racists or just brothers of the badge?

March 24, 1999|ANNE-MARIE O'CONNOR and TINA DAUNT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Cueva "looked like Clint Eastwood, and you didn't mess with him," Baca said. "He was the right guy to go in and say, 'OK, folks, all this Viking crap is over with.' "

A Viking Funeral

But when Cueva ordered the transfer of reputed Vikings out of the station, four sued him for discrimination. The suit was eventually dismissed, and in 1992, Cueva retired from the force.

The Vikings continued to operate. In May 1995, Deputy Stephen Blair was shot and killed in the line of duty. His buddies passed out lapel pins bearing the Viking symbol so deputies could wear them at his funeral, said Deputy Mike Osborne, who became a trainee at the Lynwood station in 1994.

To Osborne, the Vikings mirrored the race and gender caste system at a station where deputies had to win acceptance from white male veterans, many of whom routinely used racist and sexist slurs.

Being invited to become a Viking was considered a tremendous compliment, Osborne said. "If you're hard-charging, one of the boys, you'll be asked. If you've paid your dues and you're not an idiot."

Becoming "one of the boys" implied more than simple fellowship, Osborne said.

"You keep your mouth shut and obey the code of silence. Any illegal acts you witness by other deputies, you don't say anything. If you're asked, you say, 'I didn't see nothing,' " said Osborne.

Osborne and his wife, fellow Deputy Aurora Mellado, retired in 1996 after Mellado broke that code by accusing her training officer of fabricating or destroying evidence to harass blacks and Latinos. The officer, Jeffrey Jones, pleaded no contest to felony charges of falsifying police reports that August.

The month Jones was arraigned--March 1996--someone shot at the Osbornes' home just before midnight, as their children slept in the rear bedrooms, he said. Osborne said he suspects renegade sheriff's deputies were involved.

John Hillen, a retired Army captain at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the intensity of military life, which parallels the law enforcement experience, fosters subcultures of unit identity.

"A lot of these subgroups can be as harmful as helpful," he said. For example, Ret. Col. Dan Smith, an analyst at the Center for Defense Information, said "underground groups" that arise within military ranks often have white supremacist leanings.

Reports of such a culture in the Sheriff's Department have led attorneys pursuing misconduct complaints to try, with little success, to make membership in deputy groups admissible in court.

"It goes to motive, it goes to credibility, it implies a treatment of people of color," said civil rights attorney Hugh Manes. "Gang membership has long been accepted in courts in the context of criminal law. If it has relevance for the criminal courts, it certainly has relevance for the Sheriff's Department."

That kind of talk outrages tattooed deputies, who say the misdeeds associated with the Vikings gave everyone else a bad name.

One such deputy called the tattoos a "harmless expression of camaraderie. It's like a Marine Corps tattoo." The day he got tattooed, three of his buddies picked him up and took him to a tattoo parlor, he thinks in East L.A. The artist already knew the tattoo by heart.

Would he get one again? "No. Just because of the negative connotations," said the deputy, who is white. "I want to move forward in this career."

And while he knows "many people" in the higher ranks of the department who have tattoos, he doesn't know anyone who did not think it would hurt them in court.

"If we had a tattoo with a doughnut dipped into a cup of coffee, they'd criticize us for that," he said. "If they want to see my leg, they're going to have to get a warrant."

A white department veteran in a position of authority claims he got the first Viking tattoo back in 1980, when there were very few women or blacks in the department. He and a buddy were talking one day and decided they wanted a tattoo for their station. One day, he was at a tattoo parlor in Long Beach when he spotted the helmeted Nordic marauder on the wall. He got one, and when he showed his buddies, they got them too. He said it wasn't racially motivated--he recalls a black man and some Latinos being tattooed--but looking back, he thinks "maybe Vikings weren't a good choice."

Baca wishes deputies would just stop joining the tattoo subculture. California Highway Patrolmen get killed in the line of duty more often than sheriff's deputies, he says, and they don't get tattoos. When Marines get tattoos, they use official emblems, he said.

"You ought to be proud to be a member of the Sheriff's Department," Baca said. "Tattoo your badge on your ankle, if that's what you want to do."

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Times researcher William Holmes contributed to this story.

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