Los Angeles Almanac Logo
Home | All Almanac Topics | History

Sheriffs of Los Angeles County of Hispanic Descent

Badge of the Sheriff of Los Angeles County

Six Sheriffs of Los Angeles County are of Hispanic descent.

Tomas Avila Sanchez

Tomas Sanchez, Sheriff of Los Angeles County

Tomas Sanchez, sometime prior to 1882. Photo from the California Historical Society Collection at USC Digital Library.

Tomas Sanchez (born José Tomas Tadeo Sanchez y Avila) was the ninth Sheriff of Los Angeles County, serving seven 1-year terms in office from 1860 to 1867.

Sanchez was born in 1826 in Mexican Los Angeles. His grandfather, Vicente Anastacio Sanchez, was grantee of the Rancho La Cienega o Paso de la Tijera (later inherited by the younger Sanchez) andserved as alcalde (mayor) of Los Angeles, 1831-1832 and 1845 during the Mexican period.

In 1846, with the outbreak of war between Mexico and the United States, Sanchez joined the fight against the American invasion of California. He fought as a mounted lancer in the bloodiest battle in California between Mexican and American forces, the Battle of San Pasqual near San Diego. After the Californios capitulated to American forces and fighting ceased, Sanchez, like many others, chose to remain in Los Angeles rather than flee south.

Perhaps inspired by his grandfather’s past involvement in politics, Sanchez became actively involved in local politics, taking up the causes of the Democratic Party in California.

In 1857, Los Angeles County Sheriff James R. Barton and a posse of five were pursuing and trying to capture the outlaw Juan Flores gang, alleged to have murdered a George Pflugardt. The gang ambushed the posse and Barton and three other posse members were killed in the shootout. The surviving posse members fled back to Los Angeles to report on what had happened. Angelenos were outraged and fed up with increasing outlaw violence. Sanchez joined with the venerable Andres Pico to organize and lead a large posse to hunt down and capture Flores and his gang. Although Flores evaded capture for almost two weeks, Sanchez and Pico ultimately caught him and brought him back to Los Angeles under custody (where he was tried and hanged). The feat earned Sanchez new respect among American newcomers in Los Angeles and he lost no time in capitalizing on it. That same year, he won election to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and also in the next three consecutive years.

In 1860, Sanchez was elected to become the ninth Sheriff of Los Angeles County, the first to have been native-born in the county. With the outbreak of the American Civil War, he remained a staunch Democrat and was known, as many Angelenos, to sympathize with the Confederacy. Sanchez helped to organize a militia that ultimately tried (without him) to march to Texas to fight with the Confederacy. The force was intercepted by federal troops before even leaving California and peacefully disarmed. Sanchez remained under the suspicion of pro-Union authorities (find this story in Los Angeles County's Most Regrettable Sheriffs), but remained sheriff in Los Angeles County until 1867.

Sheriff Sanchez was a Spanish-speaker.

William Richard "Billy" Rowland

William Rowland, Former Sheriff of Los Angeles County

William R. Rowland, date unknown. Image from Find a Grave.

William "Billy" Rowland was the tenth Sheriff of Los Angeles County, serving three 2-year terms in office from 1872 to 1875 and 1880 to 1882.

He was born in 1846 to an American immigrant to Mexico, John Rowland, and to Encarnación Martinez. At the time, Mexican California had fallen to U.S. military forces in the Mexican-American War. Rowland’s home was the Rancho La Puente, a Mexican land grant in the San Gabriel Valley that his father and his father’s partner, William Workman, were granted in 1842.

Rowland was married to Manuella “Manuelita” Williams.

In 1872, at the age of 26, Rowland was elected to be Sheriff of Los Angeles County. To date, he was youngest person ever to serve as the county’s sheriff.

Rowland’s most famous exploit as sheriff was the 1874 capture of bandit Tiburcio Vasquez. Vasquez was captured by sheriff deputies at a hideout, believed to have been in what is now West Hollywood, just south of the Hollywood Hills. Rowland deliberately was not with his posse when the bandit was taken into custody. Apparently, he had reason to believe that, whenever he left his office to follow a lead on Vasquez’s whereabouts, the bandit seemed to get tipped-off. So, when Rowland had a lead for Vasquez’s hideout, he stayed behind at the office, so as not to risk alerting Vasquez that the sheriff was again on the move in his direction. Rowland’s posse surrounded the hideout and, after a shootout and wounding Vasquez, took the bandit alive into custody. Vasquez, already a folk hero to some and notorious to others, became an instant celebrity in L.A.’s jail. Rowland allowed the public to visit his prisoner and, indeed, many did, especially the ladies. After a few months, Rowland took Vasquez by sea to Northern California to stand for trial. Vasquez was convicted in San Jose and hanged.

After his time in office as sheriff, Rowland discovered oil on his inherited portion of Rancho La Puente in 1884. He established the Puente Oil Company, one of the earliest such ventures in California.

After a years-long illness, Rowland died in 1926 at his home in Los Angeles. Legendary Los Angeles water engineer William Mulholland was among those serving as his pallbearers.

Martin Aguirre

Martin Aguirre, Former Sheriff of Los Angeles County, 1898

Former Sheriff Martin Aguirre, 1898. Photo from The Capital, Volume VII. No. 9, Los Angeles, Cal., Feb. 26, 1898.

Martin G. Aguirre was the 18th Sheriff of Los Angeles County, serving a single 2-year term in office from 1889 to 1890.

Born in San Diego in 1858 to a Spanish sea captain, Aguirre was orphaned at a young age and ended up being raised by his relatives in Los Angeles. They so happened to be the Wolfskill family, an American family that had immigrated to Mexican Los Angeles and the first planters of orange trees in Los Angeles County. It was during his boyhood that he became lifelong friends with William Hammel, who also went on to serve as Sheriff of Los Angeles County.

After studying at the Jesuit University of Santa Clara, Aguirre returned home to Los Angeles and, in 1885, was elected to be Los Angeles constable, followed by appointment to deputy sheriff the following year. That period landed him in both controversy and celebration. Acting in his official capacity, Aguirre forcefully evicted an 80-year-old Native American and his family from land near the San Fernando Mission that was rightfully owned by the man. The incident was a result of what was determined to be an illegal land grab and Aguirre’s action was viewed by some as racist and others as simply doing his job. Not long thereafter, Aguirre’s actions saved the lives of 19 people threatened by severe flooding along the Los Angeles River (why much of the river is a concrete channel today). However, his desperate attempt to save a little girl did not succeed and the loss continued to grieve him for the remainder of his life.

In 1888, Aguirre was elected to be Sheriff of Los Angeles County. Aguirre’s biggest impact as Sheriff was to successfully lobby to change state law that then required sheriffs to execute death sentences (then by hanging). This was a responsibility that Aguirre had little stomach for and believed should be carried out by the state. In 1891, after lobbying by Aguirre and a number of other California sheriffs, the state legislature reassigned the grim task from sheriffs to state penal authorities. The irony came in 1899 when Aguirre himself became one of those penal authorities after being appointed warden of San Quentin Penitentiary.

Sheriff Aguirre was the last Spanish-speaking Sheriff of Los Angeles County until Sheriff Alex Villanueva, 128 years later (see below).

Eugene W. Biscailuz

Eugene Biscailuz, Sheriff of Los Angeles County, With Seized Weapons, 1934

Sheriff Eugene Biscailuz, 1934. Photo from the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, UCLA Digital Library.

Eugene W. Biscailuz was the 27th Sheriff of Los Angeles County, serving a single 2-year appointed term in office and six 4-year terms from 1932 to 1958.

He was born in Boyle Heights in 1883 to a French-Basque father and mother descended from Jose Maria Claudio Lopez, an early Spanish colonial soldier who served at the Mission San Gabriel.

Biscailuz, who earned a law degree from USC, began his career in 1907 in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department as a clerk. His legal training helped propel him through the ranks of the sheriff’s office until his appointment in 1921 as undersheriff. In 1929, Biscailuz took a leave-of-absence from duties in Los Angeles County at the request of California Governor C.C. Young to organize the new State Motor Patrol (forerunner of the California Highway Patrol) and serve as its first Superintendent. The agency absorbed county motor squads as officers and was granted statewide jurisdiction for enforcement of state motor vehicle laws. In 1931, Biscailuz returned to Los Angeles to resume his duties as Los Angeles County Undersheriff.

In 1932, Los Angeles County Sheriff William Traeger resigned in order to run for a seat in Congress. With Traeger’s the endorsement and the support of many other, the Board of Supervisors appointed Biscailuz to be sheriff. He went on to be re-elected for six additional terms.

In 1938, Biscailuz opened the first “honor farm” in California to help rehabilitate cooperating inmates. In 1933, after the Long Beach earthquake, he incorporated private pilots in assisting Sheriff’s Department search and rescue efforts. He was inspired by the assistance of a pilot friend who flew over damaged Long Beach and Santa Catalina Island after the earthquake to obtain damage information from the air.

When Biscailuz retired in 1958, he was declared "sheriff emeritus for the rest of his life" by the Board of Supervisors.

Lee Baca

Lee Baca, Sheriff of Los Angeles County

Sheriff Lee Baca, during 1998-2014. Photo from the L.A. Sheriff's Department.

Leroy David “Lee” Baca was the 30th Sheriff of Los Angeles County, serving four terms in office from 1998 to 2014.

Baca was born in East Los Angeles in 1942 to a mother who was brought as an infant to the United States from Mexico. They lived with Baca’s grandparents in Highland Park where he graduated from Benjamin Franklin High School. Baca served as high school senior class president.

In 1965, after enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps reserves, Baca became a Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff. His career led to his appointment in 1991 as Chief Deputy by then Sheriff Sherman Block. In 1993, Baca sought to replace outgoing LAPD Chief Darryl Gates, but that was unsuccessful. He retired in 1997 and then again sought to replace then outgoing LAPD Chief Willie Williams. That effort was also unsuccessful. In 1998, Baca announced his campaign to run against Sherman Block’s bid for a fifth term as Sheriff. Block was facing serious medical issues, but remained highly respected and popular inside the Sheriff’s Department and among the county’s political establishment. However, after 16 years of Block in office and a desire for change inside and outside the department, Baca pulled in enough votes in the primary election to deny Block a majority and force a run-off election. Just days before the run-off election that fall, Block died from medical complications. Block supporters were undismayed and continued campaigning for the late Sheriff’s re-election, hoping to deny a victory to Baca. An election victory for a deceased candidate would have placed the appointment of a new Sheriff in the hands of the County Board of Supervisors. The board was not supportive of Baca's candidacy, considering him an outsider to the county political establishment. Nevertheless, Baca won election to become Sheriff with more than 60 percent of the vote.

Baca was re-elected as Sheriff three times, but his tenure was riddled with controversy. It finally came to an end over the issue of inmate abuse, with Baca ending up in federal prison. Find this story in Los Angeles County's Most Regrettable Sheriffs.

Alex Villanueva

Alex Villanueva, Sheriff of Los Angeles County

Sheriff Alex Villanueva. Photo from the L.A. Sheriff's Department.

Alejandro "Alex" Villanueva was the 33rd Sheriff of Los Angeles County, serving a single term in office from 2018 to 2022.

Villanueva earned a Bachelor of Science in Liberal Studies from Regents College of the University of the State of New York, a Master of Public Administration from California State University, Northridge, and a Doctor of Public Administration from the University of La Verne.

Villanueva recounts that speaking out against wrongdoing within the department under Sheriff Lee Baca and Undersheriff Paul Tanaka (both later convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and making false statements) resulted in career retaliation against himself and his wife. He claimed to have been denied opportunities to advance beyond the rank of lieutenant.

As for Villanueva’s government/political experience outside the military and Sheriff’s Department, he was appointed in 2015 to the city planning commission for La Habra Heights and, in the same year, ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the La Habra Heights City Council.

The 2018 election of Villanueva to be Sheriff triggered three historic events in Los Angeles County:

1) He was the first Spanish-speaking sheriff in Los Angeles County since 1890 when Martin G. Aguirre served a single two-year term as sheriff from 1889 through 1890.

2) He was the first sheriff candidate in Los Angeles County to defeat an incumbent sheriff since 1914 when John C. Cline defeated incumbent Sheriff William A. Hammel.

3) He is the first Sheriff of Los Angeles County with no previous senior law enforcement command experience since 1921 when William I. Traeger became sheriff. When Traeger was appointed sheriff that year by the Board of Supervisors (replacing, incidentally, John C. Cline), he had served as an Army officer, college football coach, deputy sheriff, Deputy U.S. Marshal and Deputy Clerk of the California Supreme Court, but never in any senior law enforcement role. Since Traeger, new sheriffs in Los Angeles County had previously been either an undersheriff (Eugene Biscailuz, Peter Pitchess, Sherman Block), a chief deputy (Lee Baca) or a large-city police chief (Jim McDonnell). For his part, Villanueva retired from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department at the rank of lieutenant, commanding no more than, perhaps, 40 deputies at any time.

Some said that Villanueva’s historic victory reflected how voters felt about McDonnell’s efforts to clean up the scandal-plagued Sheriff’s Department. That may have been a factor, but Villanueva's strong grassroots campaign (particularly in Latino communities) also resulted in a large number of supportive last-minute voters. McDonnell raised eight times more campaign money and a who’s who list of endorsements from the county's political and media establishment. Villanueva, on the other hand, drew from blowback against Republicans in California and changing views of what is effective "law and order." He made the effort to reach out and connect with Los Angeles County’s enormous but often overlooked Latino community. He received strong support from the powerful Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs (ALADS), the union representing rank-and-file deputies, which independently spent $1.3 million dollars for mailers in support of Villanueva. Unfortunately, Villanueva’s success was almost immediately colored by an allegation of “straw donor” campaign contributions (an illegal effort to circumvent limits on personal political contributions) orchestrated by a Villanueva business supporter. To be fair, the allegation was against a supporter, not the Villanueva campaign itself. However, Villanueva declined to return the questionable donations, casting a troubling shadow on his political intuition, even before he assumed office.

Villanueva assumed the job with no senior command experience of his own, as did his long-ago predecessor, Sheriff Traeger. However, unlike Traeger, who initially oversaw approximately 700 employees when becoming sheriff, Villanueva faced a steep learning curve to effectively command 20,000 employees of the largest and most challenging sheriff's department and jail system in the United States. Unfortunately, like a number of his predecessors, Villanueva seemed to lose no time immersing himself in controversy. These issues are detailed in Los Angeles County's Most Regrettable Sheriffs.

Robert Luna

Robert Luna, Sheriff of Los Angeles County

Sheriff Robert Luna. Photo from the Robert Luna for Sheriff Campaign.

Robert Luna is currently the 34th Sheriff of Los Angeles County, elected to office in 2022.

As of November 15, 2022, incumbent Sheriff Alex Villanueva found himself trailing badly in vote counts and conceded the election to Robert Luna. We will be telling Luna's story here shortly.