Drug Ring Kingpin Calls the Shots From Prison, Police Say
Los Angeles police think that a prison inmate in San Diego is directing a San Fernando Valley drug organization whose top members were charged this month in the slayings of four people at a Lake View Terrace “rock” house.
Investigators said they think that the inmate, Jeffrey A. Bryant, 37, of Pacoima, is the leader of a drug ring with as many as 200 members that has controlled the sale of rock cocaine in the northeast Valley for nearly a decade.
Bryant is serving a four-year sentence at the Richard S. Donovan Correctional Facility for a 1986 conviction for operating a drug house.
“We believe he calls the shots from prison,” said Lt. Bernard D. Conine, chief of Foothill Division detectives.
Linked to Statewide Gang
Authorities said Bryant and other top-level members of his organization have been linked to the Black Guerrilla Family, a gang formed in California prisons in the early 1970s. The BGF, as it is more commonly known, at first focused on revolutionary politics but now is accused of operating a statewide drug network, authorities said.
Bryant faces no charges in the Aug. 28 quadruple slaying at the house he previously owned in the 11400 block of Wheeler Avenue. But investigators said the arrests of several lieutenants in the killings have depleted his organization’s top echelon.
Although police think they eventually will be able to break up the Valley organization, they noted that lower-level members are in line to take over for those arrested in the Wheeler Avenue killings.
“We know there are people in the organization who want to step up,” Conine said. “The bottom line is, you can still buy rock cocaine in Pacoima.”
Through informants and witnesses and from evidence gathered during searches of 26 locations where organization members lived and operated, authorities said, they have pieced together what happened at the house on Wheeler Avenue and why.
Andre Louis Armstrong, 31, and James Brown, 43, both of the Pacoima area, were hit with shotgun blasts at the door of the house, police said.
They said Lorretha Anderson English, 24, of Seaside, and her 28-month-old daughter, Chemise, were fatally shot while waiting in a car parked out front. English’s 1 1/2-year-old son, Carlos, was slightly injured by flying glass.
So far, 11 people, including Bryant’s younger brother, Stanley Bryant, 30, have been charged in the killings. Stanley Bryant, Le Roy Wheeler, 19; Levie Slack III, 24; Tannis Bryant Curry, 26; James Franklin Williams III, 19; John Preston Settle, 28; and Antonio Arceneaux, whose age was unavailable, each face four charges of murder and one charge of attempted murder. All are Pacoima residents.
Antonio Johnson, 28, and Nash Newbil, 52, both of Lake View Terrace, and William Gene Settle, 30, and Provine McCloria, 19, both of Pacoima, each face charges of accessory to murder.
The Settle brothers, McCloria and Arceneaux are still sought.
Only Stanley Bryant, Wheeler, Slack and Johnson have been arraigned. Each pleaded not guilty. Wheeler also has pleaded not guilty to a fifth murder, the Sept. 25 fatal shooting of a Pacoima drug dealer who police think was attempting to compete with the Bryant organization.
According to police and court records, the slayings occurred during a power struggle in which Armstrong, who had served a prison term for a killing attributed to the organization, demanded money and a top position in the so-called “Bryant Organization.”
A Group Decision
Instead of giving Armstrong what he wanted, the organization decided to kill him at a meeting at the Lake View Terrace house, where the group kept money and cocaine, authorities said. When other people showed up with Armstrong, gang members decided to eliminate them too, police said.
Wheeler told a police informant, “They had to be killed to protect the organization,” according to court records.
“They were shot . . . through the metal door,” he is quoted as saying, referring to Armstrong and Brown. “The woman and baby had to be killed. She was writing down license numbers. I had to shoot them.”
Authorities think the Bryant Organization took control of cocaine sales in the northeast Valley after James H. (Doc) Holiday, a leader of the BGF, was accused in a 1979 double murder in Pacoima.
The charges against Holiday, who police think had controlled cocaine traffic in the area, were dismissed. But he was convicted of the attempted murder of a witness in the case and was sent to prison, leaving the northeast Valley to Jeffrey Bryant’s group, authorities said.
The Bryant Organization began to distribute cocaine through street sales and at as many as six drug houses in the Pacoima and Lake View Terrace areas, police said. The organization soon earned a reputation for violence, police said.
“The rock cocaine business is controlled by Jeff Bryant,” according to a police statement filed in the 1986 drug case that sent Bryant to prison. In the words of the statement, “He is the head of an organization consisting of family members and associates, which exists for the sole purpose of the distribution and selling of large quantities of cocaine.”
Police think the organization was responsible for several unsolved slayings and attempted murders. Another court document filed in the 1986 case says an informant told police: “Jeff Bryant is a sergeant-at-arms in the BGF and often uses BGF soldiers to commit shootings and murders to enforce his hold on the cocaine distribution in the Pacoima area.”
Chance to Network
Bryant served time in prison in the mid-1970s for a bank-robbery conviction and may have become associated with the BGF then, police said. “Our intelligence shows the Bryant Organization is closely aligned with the BGF; in fact it claims to be the BGF,” Conine said.
Bryant and his brother, Stanley, who police say is second in command of the Valley drug gang, were charged in 1982 in the contract killing of a man who vandalized one of their cars after buying $150 worth of cocaine that he thought was of poor quality, according to court records.
Charged as the triggerman in that shooting was Armstrong, an ex-convict who had moved to Pacoima from St. Louis and had “gained a reputation for being a hit man,” court records state.
But after a preliminary hearing, the charges against the Bryant brothers were dismissed when a judge ruled there was insufficient evidence that they had ordered the killing. Armstrong later pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was sent to prison for six years.
Narcotics detectives began to focus intensively on the Bryant Organization after the murder case was dismissed, records show. Police said they identified three houses owned by Jeffrey Bryant, including the house in the 11400 block of Wheeler Avenue, where cocaine was being sold. Police said the drug operation was directed from a pool hall on Van Nuys Boulevard in Pacoima.
The drug houses were virtual fortresses; bars covered windows, and steel doors opened into cages, which cocaine buyers entered to do business, police said. Money was exchanged for cocaine through slots in the cages.
Stanley Bryant recruited people to work in the houses for $25 an hour, court records show. The workers were locked inside for eight-hour shifts. In each house, a pot filled with oil simmered 24 hours a day. Workers were instructed to dump cocaine in the oil should a police raid occur.
In the first two months of 1985, police raided the three cocaine fortresses, made several arrests and confiscated weapons and small amounts of cocaine. Evidence obtained from the raids was used to charge Jeffrey Bryant with operating drug houses. In 1986 he pleaded guilty to one of the charges and was sentenced to four years in prison.
But with the group’s leader imprisoned in San Diego, the organization did not wane, police said. Stanley Bryant headed the ring on the outside while his brother pulled strings from his prison cell, police said. Investigators said they think Jeffrey Bryant has commanded the organization by telephone and through organization members who visit him in prison.
Police have identified nearly 200 people associated with the group. Intelligence files contain a pyramid-type diagram of the organization’s structure. Jeffrey Bryant’s name is at the top, followed by four levels of increasingly larger groupings. Those listed on the diagram range from organization lieutenants to drug distributors, rock house operators and finally street-sales people.
Whereas those in the top levels are thought to be associated with the BGF, those on the bottom are mostly members of teen-age street gangs, police said. The street gangs are recruited to sell drugs so that higher-echelon members of the organization are protected, police said.
“This is how the leaders insulate themselves,” said a detective familiar with the case. “The people on the bottom are just fodder. If they get arrested, it’s easy to get someone to take their place.”
But the insulation broke down with the Aug. 28 killings at the Wheeler Avenue house, police said.
Detectives said the cause of the four killings relates to the 1982 killing that resulted in a dismissal for the Bryants and imprisonment for Armstrong.
Armstrong was released from prison in April. Police said he returned to St. Louis briefly, but early this summer moved to the Pacoima area with a friend, James Brown.
Investigators think that Armstrong was angry with the Bryant Organization because it had reneged on a promise to support his wife while he was in prison.
Police said a meeting was scheduled between Armstrong and the top members of Bryant’s group at which Armstrong intended not only to demand a top spot in the organization but the money he thought his wife should have received.
But before the meeting took place, Armstrong, Brown, English and her daughter were ambushed. Their bodies were quickly removed from the property and dumped elsewhere. The house was empty by the time police arrived, after receiving calls from neighbors.
It was another four weeks before police had gathered evidence of what happened and began arresting the lieutenants in the Bryant Organization.
Times staff writer Claudia Puig contributed to this story.