A few years ago, Johnny Yang bumped into an old acquaintance. Yang wasn't working at the time, and as they got to talking the man offered him a job. Yang had worked in restaurants, as a busboy and a dishwasher, since dropping out of Mount San Antonio College. Now the 27-year-old would be commuting from his dad's house in Walnut to Superior Herbal Health, a marijuana clinic in South L.A. He would have more responsibility. His primary job would be to count the money. He also would learn to shoot a gun.
Working in a dispensary could be dangerous. The place had been robbed once and broken into several times. His boss, Joby Alloway, installed 13 security cameras and insisted that his employees get firearms training.
“They paid me pretty well,” Yang says. “How many jobs can you get paying $150 a day?”
Yang had come to the United States from Taiwan when he was 16. He lived with his dad, a mechanic, and his stepmom. They took in roommates to make ends meet. Once a year or so, Yang would visit his mom in Taiwan. He didn't tell his parents much about his new job. He didn't want them to worry.
Yang enjoyed the relative freedom of living in Southern California. Taiwan's marijuana laws are strict, and weed is fairly inaccessible. He saved his wages to buy ecstasy and pot, and on weekends he partied in clubs — “American style.”
The clinic operated as a collective. All the workers were also patients. Johnny had a prescription to treat stress and back pain. He made friends and got to know the customers. Sometimes old ladies would bring in homemade cakes.
On a Wednesday in August 2011, a couple years after he'd landed the job, it began to unravel. Yang had the next day off and planned to get an early start on the weekend. He told a friend to bring him half a dozen ecstasy pills.
The pills were sitting on his desk in the back office when he heard pounding on the front door. He looked at the security monitor and could see it was the police. From his chair, he controlled the buzzer that unlocked the door.
He didn't know what to do. Alloway wasn't around, and the cops were threatening to break the door down. For a long moment, Yang froze.
A few decades ago, it was a felony in California to possess two seeds of marijuana. Pot prohibition has been eroding gradually for years, but the laws around marijuana are still murky when they are not totally absurd.
In the city of L.A. in 2011, dispensaries could get tax certificates, which required them to pay a 6 percent levy on marijuana sales. But they could not actually sell marijuana, according to the interpretation of the L.A. County district attorney. To get around that, the dispensaries would claim they were taking “donations.”
As collectives, they were barred from turning a profit. So narcotics investigators became amateur accountants, trying to prove that “donations” outpaced expenses. Any displays of financial success — such as a dispensary owner driving fancy car — became evidence of a crime.
“It is clear from the video that Rhodes did not have a gun at any point. … It’s a very disappointing proposition to wonder where that gun came from.”
—Prosecutor Arisa Mattson
Sheriff Lee Baca argued that dispensaries were fronts for Mexican cartels, and once declared (without much in the way of evidence) that 97 percent of dispensaries were criminal enterprises.
Their right to exist also was a matter of controversy. Superior Herbal Health was one of nearly 200 dispensaries that received city licenses. But the city attorney, who enforces city law, argued that the licensed dispensaries were illegal not under city law but under state law.
Faced with community protests, the city stopped issuing permits. Hundreds of new dispensaries sprouted up anyway. The old, permitted dispensaries wanted the new ones shut down. Federal authorities saw no distinction between the two, raiding permitted and unpermitted dispensaries alike.
Dispensaries that were not shut down often were harassed. In a particularly unsporting move, police would pull over cars driving away from dispensaries and arrest the occupants for drug possession. Enforcement seemed to be almost random. It was impossible to explain why some dispensaries were raided and others were left alone.
Joby Alloway knew all of this firsthand. Alloway had opened Superior Herbal Health in 2007, just before the city imposed its moratorium. To supply the store, he converted the entire first floor of his Mount Washington home into an indoor grow operation. In 2008, state narcotics agents raided his house and seized 1,100 plants.
The investigation unfolded like your average high-level drug bust. An informant's tip about one of Alloway's friends led to months of clandestine surveillance, which led investigators to Alloway's front door. The whole thing wrapped up in dramatic style, with a takedown in an underground garage. Yet Alloway was allowed to keep selling marijuana at the dispensary even after his arrest. In fact, investigators never bothered to search the dispensary.
With the right combination of linguistic contrivances, marijuana could be sold. It just couldn't come from anywhere.
Alloway pleaded guilty to cultivating marijuana and stealing electricity from the Department of Water and Power. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail and ordered not to sell or grow marijuana for three years. As the owner of a dispensary, this condition posed a challenge.
“I don't think he was selling,” says Eric Shevin, his lawyer. “These are semantical games. He's a member of a collective. It's a democratically run organization.”
Shevin, who's one of the top criminal lawyers for dispensary owners, says that, with the legal ground shifting constantly, it's hard to give advice.
“The courts are still so unclear on how a dispensary is supposed to operate — how it's supposed to get the marijuana,” Shevin says. “It's a quagmire of uncertainty.”
This was the backdrop on Aug. 24, 2011, when Johnny Yang was trying to decide whether to open the door. Marijuana was legal — except when a police officer decided it wasn't. Yang himself had been arrested for possession while leaving work, as had other patients.
“They don't give a shit about what we are doing,” Yang says. “I feel like it's harassment.”
The deputies also were operating in a murky area. Though the dispensary was in the city of Los Angeles, they were not wearing LAPD uniforms. Instead, they wore black T-shirts, blue jeans and bulletproof vests. That was the uniform of Operation Safe Streets, the Sheriff's hard-core anti-gang unit.
Julio Cesar Martinez had 13 years with the department. His partner, Anthony Paez, had five. According to a sheriff's source, both were members of the Jump Out Boys, a deputy clique that operated like an illicit gang. The group had adopted a creed to do whatever it took to combat crime — including getting their hands dirty.
They seemed to have the tacit support of Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who famously encouraged the gang unit to “work in the gray area.” Tanaka himself had been a member of a deputy clique, and has a Vikings tattoo to prove it.
At least one of the two deputies — Paez — also has a tattoo. It depicts a skull holding a gun and wearing a bandana emblazoned with the letters “OSS.” It's the emblem of the Jump Out Boys.
Martinez was one of the clique's “shot callers,” according to a sheriff's source. He would later write a three-page narrative of the events of that day. His report would help generate two sets of criminal charges — first against Yang and then, when discrepancies emerged, against himself.
According to Martinez's report, he and Paez were driving along 84th Place when they saw a black man exit a building. The report states that the man appeared to engage in a hand-to-hand drug transaction with another man. When the first man saw the officers, the report states, he reached into his pocket and pulled out what looked like the butt of a handgun.
The man — later identified as Antonio Rhodes, who's a barber working in Long Beach — ran back into the building. Martinez got out of his car and tried to chase him, but the door was locked. Martinez wrote in his report that he could smell marijuana. He demanded that the door be opened, then ran to the side of the building.
The report says that, through an open window, Martinez could see Rhodes inside and witnessed him stash something next to a white trash can. Martinez returned to the front of the building and pounded on the door some more. Finally it opened.
He and Paez went inside, where they found a small waiting room full of people. There was no signage outside, and it was only then, the report states, that they realized they were in a dispensary. They ordered everyone out.
Another locked door led to a display room. Again, Martinez demanded that the door be unlocked. Once inside, he ordered the employees to exit with their hands up.
Martinez wrote that he could see “large amounts of marijuana in every room” and that they did a “protective sweep” of the building — finding three black handguns. Martinez's report states that one was on Yang's desk, where they also found his ecstasy pills. Then they discovered what the report described as Rhodes' gun behind the white trash can. It was loaded. When they ran it through their system, it came back unregistered.
The deputies called for backup. The narcotics team arrived with a search warrant. They seized the guns, cash, computers, a video recorder and several large bags full of marijuana.
Several employees were detained for hours in the back of a squad car. Yang admitted that the ecstasy belonged to him. He was arrested and taken to the Lennox Sheriff's station. Rhodes was arrested for possessing an unregistered gun.
“I was like, 'Are you for real?'” Rhodes tells the Weekly in an interview. “How can I run inside a dispensary — where they wand you — if I have a gun?”
Rhodes had been arrested for drug possession before, but never for guns.
When a detective interviewed him the next morning, Rhodes swore the gun wasn't his.
“I didn't ever deal with guns,” Rhodes says. “I didn't have nothing.”
Both men were released after a night in jail. Four months later they were charged in a four-count felony complaint. Rhodes was accused of possessing the unregistered weapon. Yang was charged with possession of ecstasy for sale and possession of ecstasy with a firearm — and the latter charge made it a state felony case.
Rhodes missed a couple court appearances, which resulted in warrants for his arrest. Meanwhile, he had a hard time getting to seeing his two kids, because their mother said she didn't want them around guns. Eventually the charges against Rhodes were dropped.
Yang tried to fight the case for few months but ended up pleading no contest to the gun charge.
In the summer of 2012, Yang reported to the Men's Central Jail for his six-month sentence. He went to work in the jail cafeteria, which made the time go faster. Due to overcrowding, he was released after three weeks.
As a term of his probation, Yang was ordered not to have anything to do with marijuana and not to associate with his friends from the dispensary. He started up a chicken restaurant in Huntington Park — Johnny's Chick'n Arroz — but it quickly folded.
“I got a little depressed and stressed out,” he says.
One evening Yang came home and found a note to call Sgt. Kelly Matthews in the Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau. The department had received a misconduct complaint against the deputies. Investigators couldn't prove that allegation, but something about it had prompted them to dig into other arrests, including Yang's.
Matthews came out to interview Yang. One of his first questions was whether there was a gun on Yang's desk on the day he was arrested. Yang said there was.
Matthews showed him a still image from the surveillance video, and asked Yang to point out the gun.
There were stacks of cash, a phone, a scale — but no gun.
Yang tells the Weekly that he had assumed all along that someone working for the dispensary must have left a gun on his desk.
In fact, as the surveillance video showed, it was the deputies who placed it there. Yang had been railroaded and didn't even know it.
Dante Benton, a dispensary security guard, said that when he saw the deputies carting off the video equipment on the day of the arrests, he figured they would never be able to prove they were victims of misconduct.
And they wouldn't have, if Matthews hadn't reopened the case, retrieved the video from storage and watched it.
“I had no idea what was on that video,” says Yang's defense attorney, Ryan Rodriguez. “It hadn't been made available to us.”
By that point, Internal Affairs had already identified Paez and Martinez as members of the Jump Out Boys. As first reported by the L.A. Times in April 2012, the clique came to light when a supervisor discovered a pamphlet that outlined the group's philosophy.
“We are alpha dogs who think and act like the wolf, but never become the wolf,” read one of the passages, according to the Times.
The members got matching skull tattoos, reminiscent of the tattoos flaunted by LAPD's CRASH officers, the unit at the center of the Rampart scandal in the late 1990s. Most disturbing, Jump Out Boys who fired their weapons in the line of duty added smoke to their tattoos, apparently glorifying the acts.
At the time the Jump Out Boys came to light, it was unclear whether the group was linked to any misconduct. One unnamed member told the Times that the group was a social club, akin to the Boy Scouts and that an internal review had found nothing unlawful.
In fact, in March 2012, Paez had shot and killed a man named Arturo Cabrales under suspicious circumstances.
Cabrales was standing in his gated front yard at his home near the Jordan Downs housing project when deputies pulled up and started questioning his uncle. According to a lawsuit filed by Cabrales' family, Cabrales started talking to the deputies, and Paez tried to enter his gate.
Cabrales told him he couldn't come in without a warrant, the lawsuit states, but Paez came in anyway. Cabrales turned and ran, and Paez opened fire, hitting Cabrales six times, four times in the back.
Paez told investigators that Cabrales had pointed a gun at him. No gun was found on Cabrales' body. But another deputy — Martinez — backed up Paez's story, saying he had seen Cabrales throw the gun over a fence. A gun was indeed recovered from the neighbor's yard, but Cabrales' family maintained that he was unarmed and the gun did not belong to him.
The county recently settled with Cabrales' family for $1.5 million.
“These guys were really bad guys,” says attorney Humberto Guizar, who represented Cabrales' family. “They were like the Rampart guys.”
The Weekly obtained the surveillance video from Superior Herbal Health last month, after it was entered into evidence at a preliminary hearing. It conflicts with Martinez's report in several alarming ways.
At the beginning of the video, Rhodes can be seen exiting the dispensary, followed by security guard Dante Benton. While Martinez had written in his report that the two men engaged in a hand-to-hand drug transaction, on the video it's clear that it's just a fist bump.
In his report, Martinez said that once Rhodes saw the officers, he reached with his right hand into his shorts and pulled out the butt of a handgun.
On the video, Rhodes clearly does not reach for his pocket. He then turns and goes back into the dispensary.
In his report, Martinez said he looked through the dispensary window and saw Rhodes stashing an item next to a white trash basket. On the video, Rhodes is seen inside the display room, returning the paper bag of marijuana to the cashier. Rhodes then stands stock still against the wall, hands at his sides, until Martinez and Paez enter the display room and order everyone to exit the building. At no point does he go anywhere near the waste basket or place anything beside it.
Once everyone is ordered to leave, Paez and Martinez are seen getting to work. Paez rummages in a drawer near the white trash basket in the display room. With his back to the camera, he places an object on a chair. When he walks away, the object is revealed to be a black handgun.
Yet the unregistered gun —- the one that was pinned on Rhodes — has a chrome finish. It never appears on the surveillance video.
In his report, Martinez said that he and Paez recovered three black guns in three different rooms — all of which were registered to the dispensary's security guards — in addition to the unregistered handgun that was fished out of the trash (but actually wasn't). His report does not say anything about retrieving a black gun from a drawer in the display room.
On the video, Paez and Martinez can be seen looking up at the display room's ceiling. At one point, Martinez kicks at a wall outlet, knocking out the lights in a display case. Prosecutors believe he was trying to shut off the video.
Martinez then picks up the black gun off the chair and leaves the room.
Shortly thereafter, another surveillance camera captures the deputies walking into the back office — Yang's office. There is no gun on Yang's desk. Paez is carrying two black guns and places both on the desk. Then he gets under the desk and rummages around for a minute, cutting power to the surveillance system. The image freezes.
The video evidence is thus incomplete. For one thing, it does not show where the chrome gun came from.
“If we had seen the video go longer, perhaps we would all know the answers,” prosecutor Arisa Mattson said at the preliminary hearing. “It is clear from the video that Rhodes did not have a gun at any point. … It's a very disappointing proposition to wonder where that gun came from.”
Vicki Podberesky, Martinez's attorney, argued that the discrepancies between the video and Martinez's report amounted to “innocent mistakes.”
“I think he's a good deputy,” she tells the Weekly in an interview. “I think he was doing his job to the best of his ability. If he made a mistake or mis-observed or wrote something that's not 100 percent represented in the video, I don't think it was intentional.”
Podberesky also rebuts the prosecution's suggestion that the chrome gun was planted.
“The guns were all there,” she says. “I don't think there's any motive for our guys to plant a gun. It doesn't make any sense really.”
True, planting a gun at a dispensary doesn't make much sense: Why risk getting caught and losing a career just to fabricate a low-level possession charge? (It would make much more sense to plant a gun at the scene of an officer-involved shooting.)
If they did plant the gun at the dispensary, that would be almost more disturbing than planting one at a shooting. It would suggest that planting guns had become almost routine.
To Johnny Yang, that's the only explanation that makes sense.
“We know what we have,” he says. “We don't have silver guns. We only have black ones. They are registered and legal. The silver one, they planted.”
In February 2013, seven deputies — including Paez and Martinez — were fired, though the department didn't specify why. The deputies are still pursuing administrative appeals. In March 2014, when Guizar took Paez's deposition in the Cabrales shooting, Paez said that he and the other six deputies were fired because they had Jump Out Boys tattoos.
The following month, prosecutors brought charges against Paez and Martinez for fabricating evidence in the Superior Herbal Health case. They also dropped the case against Yang, vacating his conviction and revoking his probation.
According to the DA, the real criminals were the cops.
Martinez faces up to seven years in prison. Paez could face five. But before the preliminary hearing, prosecutors offered a deal. If they pleaded guilty, they would receive three years' probation and 180 days in jail.
Their attorneys turned it down. Podberesky suggests that she might agree to have Martinez drop the appeal of his termination in exchange for a sentence of no jail time.
“One hundred and eighty days is not an acceptable offer,” she tells the Weekly.
At the moment, the case appears headed to trial. If so, the defense may try to turn the spotlight on Superior Herbal Health. Podberesky notes that Alloway had been barred from selling marijuana due to his grow-house conviction yet he continues to own the dispensary.
“It looks a little shady,” she says. “There was criminal activity going on at the dispensary. There was ecstasy found there and an unregistered firearm. … I think the probable cause to go into the dispensary in the first place was well supported.”
The legal terrain has changed somewhat since 2011, though, giving dispensaries such as Superior Herbal Health more legitimacy. For example, the state Supreme Court has clarified that it is legal to sell marijuana at a dispensary. In L.A., voters approved a measure that grandfathered in all the older, permitted dispensaries.
After a long stretch of time with its legal status in doubt, Superior Herbal Health today could be worth as much as $2 million.
Rhodes claims that he is now being targeted by the police, and his friends think he's a snitch. Asked whether he approves of the prosecution's offer of 180 days for Martinez and Paez, Rhodes says he's mostly interested in getting an explanation.
“I wouldn't wish jail on nobody,” Rhodes says. “I just wonder why. I would ask them, 'Why'd y'all do that?'”
Yang believes the prosecutor is letting the deputies off too easy.
“If they got 10 to 20 years, I would feel like I'm satisfied,” he said. “What I've been through is not supposed to happen.”
Since his chicken restaurant failed, Yang and his family have been visiting swap meets and yard sales and buying items to resell on eBay.
“We didn't think about this back in Taiwan,” he says. “We thought this was the American dream. It is a nice life, but there's a lot of tricks. I feel like I got tricked.”
Yang blames himself for buzzing the deputies into the dispensary in the first place. He says he thought the police would do the right thing. Now he knows he was too trusting.
“I feel like it was my fault,” he says. “They had no right to come in the building. It happened because I made it happen.”
Sheriff Baca resigned last year, under pressure stemming from a host of scandals. A new sheriff, Jim McDonnell, recently was sworn in and has vowed to clean up the department.
In a statement, Neal Tyler, the sheriff's executive officer, declined to go into specifics on the Jump Out Boys. He wrote that deputy cliques are clearly against policy and the department pursues all allegations of misconduct. McDonnell is personally signing off on discipline cases.
“The department has implemented a committee to examine how potentially unhealthy cliques have arisen and what steps can be taken by supervisors and managers to create work environments that discourage them,” Tyler stated.
Tyler said the department is exploring, among other things, a tattoo policy.
More work may need to be done to root out the Jump Out Boys. Some of the deputies were fired solely for having a tattoo, and their union argues that those tattoos constitute protected free speech. Their appeals may succeed.
Guizar says other deputies might have belonged to the group but avoided getting in trouble because they didn't have a tattoo.
“Not all gang members have a tattoo,” he says. “I don't think they got all of them.”
It could be that, amid all the department's other scandals, the Jump Out Boys did not attract the scrutiny they deserved.
Merrick Bobb, the department's longtime independent monitor, recently was asked if he had ever heard of other allegations of guns being planted.
Just once, he said. “Rampart.”