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In Fresno, Agencies Fight Gangs With MAGEC

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Inside a faceless building in the middle of downtown Fresno, the newest great hope in California’s war on crime is open for business. They call it MAGEC, one superagency devoted to one grand mission: wiping out street gangs in the 10th-largest county in the state.

In a back office, the local head of the FBI huddles with a police sergeant, promising to hand over three federal agents come Monday. Down the hall, detectives from the Fresno Police Department and the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office are tracking the latest bloodshed between the Oriental Ruthless Boys and the Men of Destruction.

Darting to and fro are officers from Coalinga, Clovis, Sanger, the California Highway Patrol and state Bureau of Narcotics. Parole agents work alongside probation officers, and three prosecutors in corner offices juggle the usual fare--homicide, drive-by shootings and witness intimidation.

Welcome to the Multi-Agency Gang Enforcement Consortium, a mouthful of bureaucracy with the merciful acronym MAGEC (pronounced “magic”). No turf battles or petty interagency rivalries steal from the mission here, officials say. Gov. Pete Wilson is so taken with the model of consolidation and cooperation that he hopes to export the program to counties statewide.

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“California has never seen an army the likes of this,” Wilson said at the program’s unveiling last month. “Thugs are now on notice that their days are numbered here.”

The program was the brainchild of Fresno County Sheriff Steve Magarian, and the partnership includes 11 small-town police departments and a dozen state and federal agencies.

Teaming up to tackle a local crime problem is nothing new. It’s been tried in Los Angeles and Orange counties with varying results. But officials say the extent of the cooperation in Fresno, housing so many different agencies and officers under one roof with a shared computer system and tactical plan, is unprecedented.

“We’re basically starting up a new law enforcement agency with 70 members,” said Sheriff’s Lt. Robert Hagler. “We’re not simply adding another layer to the bureaucracy. Something real is going on here.”

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For a long time, officials operated under the illusion that the mountains that wall off the San Joaquin Valley made this farm belt impervious to gangs. “We’d go to classes in Los Angeles and hear the stories about drive-bys and children getting killed, and we’d say, ‘This is Mars,’ ” Hagler recalled. “Well, Mars has come to Fresno.”

Investigators say that more than 40 gangs, with about 1,500 members, have taken root in the city alone--gangs imported from Los Angeles and gangs indigenous to this valley. Today, gang violence is the leading cause of homicide in Fresno, accounting for nearly a quarter of the 70 or so slayings each year. Jamileh Schwartzbart, a senior deputy district attorney assigned to MAGEC, recently prosecuted three teenagers who had targeted the wrong duplex for retaliation in a drive-by shooting.

The gang members, armed with an assault rifle and shotgun, fired 30 rounds into the house, killing a 3-year-old girl and badly injuring her mother. They then drove to an apartment house half a mile down the road and fired nine more rounds, injuring a 14-year-old and his mother. They were found guilty of first-degree murder and face life sentences.

“With MAGEC, I’m not doing anything that I didn’t do before,” Schwartzbart said. “But now, if I’m reading a report and I see the gang name ‘Half Moon,’ I can walk a few feet across the hall and ask, ‘Who in the heck is Half Moon?’ ”

Steve Polacek, the chief deputy district attorney overseeing the unit, said that housing everyone in one building--the cop on the street, detectives, prosecutors, parole and probation agents--will help create a vise-like pressure on gangs.

For instance, the workloads of county probation officers--as many as 400 cases per officer--are so heavy that gang members violating terms of parole often elude the law. Now, two officers assigned to the agency spend their day bird-dogging habitual gang offenders, waiting to pounce at the first sign of any violation.

“It would be Pollyanna-ish to say that we’re going to eliminate every gang that’s active in Fresno,” Polacek said. “But I think with this new approach we’ll be making a significant impact. I think the community will see a difference.”

One coup is getting three of the city’s 15 FBI agents to work full-time at MAGEC’s downtown office. The shift in FBI personnel has raised some questions among other federal agencies. Over the years, the local FBI office has been criticized for not pursuing white-collar criminals and official corruption aggressively enough. Now, three FBI agents who might have worked such cases will focus on street gangs instead.

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“Throwing three agents at the gang problem is a big commitment for us,” James Beasley, the local FBI chief, said. “I sometimes wonder if I can afford it. But it’s a recognition that gangs are the most serious law enforcement problem in Fresno.”

Beasley acknowledged that Fresno gangs lack the sophistication and Mafia-like tentacles of gangs in Los Angeles. But as long as they fit the definition of a “continuing criminal enterprise” advanced through drug money or prostitution, the feds have a role.

“We’re going to help collect intelligence and document the extent of gang problems. Who are the people most deserving of our attention? Who are the baddest actors?” Beasley said.

“I can’t say that every door kicked down will lead to a federal case, but I think there will be enough to justify our presence.”

The state has allocated $250,000 to the project, and in meetings with law enforcement agencies throughout the state, Wilson has touted MAGEC as a solution to the gang problem.

“The governor thinks it’s a model that can be exported to other communities because it’s a top-to-bottom cooperative effort that goes beyond past programs,” said Sean Walsh, the governor’s press secretary.

“One of the elements is to pick up illegal aliens who are members of street gangs. It can have an enormous impact in places like Los Angeles and San Diego. In the case of an illegal, you don’t have to prove that a crime of violence was committed. You simply turn them over to immigration authorities. It’s a slam-dunk prosecution,” Walsh said.

After only a month of operation--and one bust to its credit--MAGEC is still working out the bugs. The computer needs tweaking, and boxes are stacked here and there. Everything from search and seizure to the way officers file reports must be reviewed or modified because each agency has its own way of doing things.

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Last week, Fresno Police Sgt. Len Gleim stood in the chilly fog, watching officers from half a dozen agencies practice approaching a house with the necessary stealth and teamwork.

“There are no turf wars here. We don’t worry about bureaucrats or bureaucracy. We don’t worry about politics or politicians,” he said. “Our only concern is the bad guys, putting them in jail as long as we can.”


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