GPS helps crack case in killing, police say

Times Staff Writers

In what officials are calling a first for the LAPD, detectives on Tuesday said they got a crucial and immediate break in a slaying case by using a Global Positioning Satellite system that was tracking the movements of gang members.

As part of a new state crackdown on gangs, authorities last month placed GPS monitoring bracelets on 20 gang members as a condition of their parole from prison.

The bracelets keep a running log of where the 20 gangs members are -- and include time-stamped mapping.


Detectives said the system paid off Monday night when Nelly Vergara Hernandez, 20, was fatally shot in a Mid-City neighborhood known for gang activity.

As soon the radio call went out reporting the drive-by shooting at Venice Boulevard and Wilton Place, Sgt. Ruby Malachi had an idea.

Malachi, who runs the LAPD’s crime analysis center below City Hall East, directed her officers to punch in the date, time and location into the computer tracking the movements of the 20 gang members.

She noticed that one of the gang members was at the Wilton Place address when the shooting occurred.

At the scene, witnesses said they saw seven people in a black sport utility vehicle from which the shots were fired. A police helicopter tracked the gang member’s GPS trail to Compton, where he was in a black SUV.

The SUV parked at a home in Compton, and seven men got out. Police set up surveillance of the house and eventually arrested seven suspects including the MS-13 gang member being tracked, John Garcia, 20, police said.

The other arrested are Juan Carlos Gutierrez, 31; Israel Flores, 20; Milcar Valencia Romero, 21; Jesse Anthony Castro, 20 and two juveniles aged 16 and 17. All were booked on suspicion of murder, though officials have not said which one they believe fired the fatal shot.

Until now, the department has used the GPS system mainly to track the movements of high-risk sex offenders on parole from prison. About 50 such offenders are now being tracked, and the LAPD plans to add an additional 500 convicted sex offenders in July.

LAPD officials said they would now like to extend the gang GPS program, targeting gang parolees who either live in areas with large numbers of shootings or are in particularly violent gangs.

“It’s futuristic, it’s real-time,” said LAPD Deputy Chief Kenneth Garner. “It’s almost a scene out of “Minority Report,” referring to the Steven Spielberg movie that delves into the future of law enforcement. “It works especially well with shootings or other violent crime because, in most cases, you can pinpoint to the minute when it happens. Potentially, it will change the way we do business and the way policing is done nationwide.”

The pilot program is being run by the LAPD’s Real-Time Analysis and Critical Response Division in cooperation with the state Department of Corrections, which has been sponsoring similar pilot programs in other counties.

In San Bernardino County, a similar GPS tracking program resulted in several arrests for parole violations as well as the filing of charges against a gang member who allegedly committed a string of robberies while wearing his bracelet. In another case, data from a GPS device worn by a gang member who was killed helped police solve that case.

“At any given time an agent can track the movements of a parolee. They can also tell where they have been if there is an issue about there location at the time of a crime,” said Roy Chaney, district administrator for California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Bill Sessa, spokesman for the corrections department said the Los Angeles program is now being considered for expansion throughout the state. The cost for that program is about $60,000 for the equipment -- plus the labor cost for officers monitoring the movements of the 20 gang members.

The gang members being monitored have violent criminal histories, are actively affiliated with a gang and are in one of the top-10 targeted L.A. gangs identified earlier this year by Police Chief William J. Bratton.

Besides MS-13, the gang believed involved in Monday’s shooting, the LAPD is tracking members of the Black P-Stones Crips and Rollin’ 30s gangs of South Los Angeles.

“This is where we are going when it comes to crime prevention and monitoring. This is going to change the way offenders behave,” said George Tita, a professor of criminology at UC Irvine. “I would not be surprised if this has a deterrent effect with gang members.”