The largest single gang prosecution in San Bernardino County history ended last week with the sentencing of 25-year-old Cherish Velez.
The Apple Valley woman, who was ordered to spend 16 years in prison on assault and drug charges, was the 61st person with ties to the East Side Victoria street gang to be put behind bars, prosecutors said.
The years-long effort by prosecutors has stymied a gang that mired the high desert town of Victorville in drugs and violence since the late 1960s.
"They were committing everything from burglary and drug crimes to murder," said San Bernardino County Dist. Atty. Michael A. Ramos, whose office led the crackdown. "We finally had enough."
The East Side Victoria gang had pledged allegiance and paid tribute to the Mexican mafia, funneling money in exchange for protection in prison. But the sustained prosecution weakened the transnational gang's grip on the Inland Empire, prosecutors said.
No trials were held — all 61 gang members and associates pleaded guilty, and the deals struck with prosecutors amount to 485 years in prison.
Fred "Joker" Archuleta, the gang's founder, was already in prison but was sentenced to another 25 years to life.
George "Rascal" DeGraw, who took over for Archuleta and ran the gang like a decentralized syndicate, was sentenced to 20 years behind bars for selling methamphetamine, committing burglary and conspiring to commit extortion, prosecutors said.
And Joel "Bouncer" Pompa, who often collected "taxes" for the Mexican mafia, was sentenced to about 42 years on assault, burglary, robbery and conspiracy charges.
One person who was charged, Darryl Castrejon, eluded authorities. Facing trial in Pomona on charges of conspiracy to commit murder, Castrejon disappeared in 2009.
The prosecution effort began in 2006, when Victorville secured an injunction against the gang. An investigation in 2008 culminated in two indictments issued in 2009.
Only one gang member actually testified in front of the grand jury, putting the weight of the case on thousands of hours of wiretapped phone conversations. Investigators monitored up to four phone calls at a time, painstakingly documenting details about methamphetamine prices, carjackings, marijuana packaging and gun sales that were later listed in indictments.
"Police would get clued into where drugs were being held, where a meth lab was, then they'd intercept them," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Britt Imes, who indicted 72 members of the gang in total. Of those, nine "minor players" were placed on probation and two were dismissed from the case, Imes said.
Gangs have been active in San Bernardino for decades — the county had the third-most gang members in the country, according to an FBI report from 2011.
Many are homegrown, like the East Side Victoria gang, but prosecutors say gangs from across Southern California have a toehold in the area.
The region saw an uptick in gang activity in the mid-2000s, when people migrated from urban areas to the high desert suburbs, bringing criminal ties with them, Imes said.
Gang injunctions in Los Angeles and elsewhere may have made the remote desert appealing, especially for drug production and trade. And the proximity of Las Vegas, access to major freeways, and the three state and two federal prisons nearby all created a dynamic that drew gang members from Riverside, Orange, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties, Imes said.
Since 2005, the county has sent more than 5,000 gang members to prison, with 250 on life sentences, Ramos said.
"You don't ultimately ever squash it out," Imes said about gang activity. "You inhibit it, disrupt it ... ultimately it shifts and changes." He added: "It's a hydra."