Heavily armed police and federal agents stormed into a Glassell Park neighborhood Wednesday morning to wrest control away from a street gang -- and loyalists with deep family ties to its members -- that has in effect turned the sequestered swath of run-down apartments into rogue territory.
With a sweeping federal racketeering indictment, more than 500 agents, including 10 SWAT teams, arrested 28 people in an attempt to root out the Avenues gang members who have ruled the area with violence and near impunity.
The indictment, which grew out of a 10-month investigation, names 70 defendants -- mostly connected to the Drew Street clique of the larger Avenues gang. The gang dates to the zoot suit era in Northeast Los Angeles and is closely connected to the Mexican Mafia prison gang. Twenty-six defendants were already in custody and 16 are at large.
Prosecutors allege that the gang committed three murders, shot at police, extorted businesses, conducted home invasion robberies, taxed drug dealers for the Mexican Mafia and threatened potential witnesses -- all as part of an enterprise to distribute methamphetamine and rock cocaine in the area. Authorities say undercover agents conducted scores of drug purchases from the gang during the investigation.
U.S. Atty. Thomas P. O’Brien called the sweep “the largest gang take-down in recent L.A. history.”
He said he was confident that by targeting so many defendants with heavy federal charges, the effort would accomplish what previous crackdowns, convictions, injunctions and evictions have so far been unable to do: break the gang’s grip on the low-income neighborhood, which is heavily Latino.
Half of the defendants could face life in prison without parole if convicted, said Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office.
Francisco “Pancho” Real, 26, who was identified as the leader of the Drew Street clique, brought in $1,200 a day in drug money alone, according to a wiretap recording described in the indictment. He was arrested at his home in Glendale.
The gang stirred a storm of media coverage and police attention after a wild, rolling shootout in February.
The indictment suggests that the shooting stemmed from a brewing turf battle between the Avenues, backed by the Mexican Mafia, and the Cypress Park gang.
On Feb. 21, in order to prevent Cypress Park from dealing drugs in their territory, the indictment alleges, Real’s cohorts shot to death one of its members, Marcos Salas, as he held his 2-year-old granddaughter’s hand in front of her elementary school. Minutes later police pulled over the three suspected gunmen, who then opened fire with an assault rifle. Police fatally shot one of them, Real’s half brother Daniel Leon.
Authorities had wiretaps on Real’s phones at the time. The day after the shooting, Real shrugged off Leon’s death, using a profanity to say "[stuff] happens,” according to the indictment.
The gang didn’t skip a beat after the shootout, the summaries of the wiretaps suggest.
In March, Real ordered the owner of a local tire shop to pay him $30,000 within 24 hours, prosecutors allege, or he would kill him and burn down his shop. When the owner of an adjoining tire shop told Real that he did not understand why they had to pay him, Real said they were operating in his territory, the indictment alleges.
Real is one of 13 children of Maria Leon, the matriarch of the gang and a defendant in the case, according to law enforcement. She has a criminal record with three drug arrests and was in custody Wednesday morning for reentering the country after a deportation.
The family hails from a sweltering, lawless part of the Mexican state of Guerrero, as does much of the neighborhood. Based on their shared roots, many residents maintain a fierce solidarity and loathing for the police.
On Wednesday, an 81-year-old woman on Isabel Street, Olga Martinez, called the police “gestapos” after they broke down her door looking for her son. Numerous other residents declined to talk.
“We don’t know anything, we didn’t hear anything, we didn’t see anything,” said a woman who lives on Drew Street and declined to give her name.
The layout of the small neighborhood -- cut off by San Fernando Road, backed up against Forest Lawn Memorial-Park -- helps this separation from mainstream society persist just four miles from downtown Los Angeles. With few entrances, spotters easily monitor who comes and goes. Gang interventionists, common in other tough neighborhood, don’t even go there.
“The Drew Street gang ordinarily is vigilant to the presence of ‘outsiders,’ ” the indictment says. “Gang members are likely to identify and physically threaten to kill them.”
The Avenues, which police estimate has about 400 members, had a bout of infamy in 1995 when members shot and killed 3-year-old Stephanie Kuhen, whose family made a wrong turn into a dead-end street in Cypress Park.
The dense configuration of apartments on Drew Street allows gangbangers to disappear when police roll in.
“This is a claustrophobic neighborhood, and the gang members use it to their advantage,” City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo said.
Delgadillo’s office shut down Maria Leon’s house on Drew Street last year with a nuisance abatement lawsuit. More than 40 arrests had been made there in 2006. During a raid in 2002, police found cocaine, marijuana, a Tec-9 assault weapon, ammunition, a small explosive and a cellphone that was ringing with customers’ drug orders, according to court records. Six children under 10 were inside, including Leon’s youngest child, a 3-month-old boy.
Leon and her family moved to Victorville, where the Internal Revenue Service recently seized their home as part of this investigation.
Eighteen agencies were involved in the probe, including the LAPD; federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, FBI, IRS, Glendale police and the Los Angeles city attorney.
On Wednesday, Delgadillo announced 10 more nuisance abatement lawsuits to clean out properties in the area. The suits aim to force property owners to provide armed security guards, security cameras, strict tenant screening and the eviction of anyone involved in drug sales or use.
“The people who live in this neighborhood are prisoners in their own homes,” he said.
Authorities said the gang routinely threatened witnesses to their crimes, creating a climate of fear that allowed members to operate freely.
In one allegation detailed in the indictment, three members robbed a residence on Marmion Way, using a 9-millimeter handgun and an M-11 assault rifle.
When Real got word that the victims were to appear at a police lineup, he directed a subordinate to “instruct the victims . . . that they were to ‘keep their mouths shut’ and not identify any of the Avenues or Drew Street gang members at the lineup that day or [he] would retaliate against them,” the indictment said.
Two of the victims did what he said, but one did not, the indictment said. Real allegedly drove to that person’s house that night and threatened to retaliate against them or their family if they went to court again.
U.S. Atty. O’Brien said his office was investigating allegations that an attorney for one of the gang members tipped Real off when witnesses showed up at police lineups.
Police and state prosecutors often complain that the gang cannot be brought to trial because witnesses are intimidated. Because much of the 157-page indictment is based on federal wiretap evidence and drug buys by undercover agents, prosecutors hope to circumvent that obstacle.
Times staff writers Richard Winton and Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
A look at the case:
Enduring law enforcement crackdowns spanning nearly six decades, the Avenues is a multi-generational gang rooted in a swath of Los Angeles neighborhoods northeast of the 5 Freeway near the 2 Freeway. Leaders and associates are tied to a series of high-profile crimes, including the 1995 slaying of 3-year-old Stephanie Kuhen, whose family strayed into the gang’s territory, and a 1997 racketeering conspiracy involving Alex “Pee Wee” Aguirre, a reputed Avenues leader and Mexican Mafia prison gang veteran.
The latest focus
The recently formed “Drew Street” branch of the gang claims its turf as near Drew Street and Estara Avenue. Estimated to be 500 strong, Drew Street clique members are accused in an 88-count federal grand jury indictment of racketeering, distributing crack cocaine and methamphetamine, extorting drug dealers, businesses and residents, as well as intimidating African Americans who enter the area.
The 158-page indictment, naming 70 defendants, alleges that Avenues and Drew Street members:
Attempted to shoot and kill two Los Angeles police officers who were arresting a gang member suspected of being under the influence of drugs in 2003. A second attempt to kill officers was made earlier this year.
Participated in a series of homicides, attempted homicides and homicide conspiracies from 2003 to this year involving street gang rivals and victims who ventured onto the gang’s turf. Members operated under the authority of the Mexican Mafia.
Maintained a ready supply of stolen and unregistered machine guns, assault rifles, shotguns and automatic handguns, as well as body armor, used for attacks and intimidation against enemies, police, outsiders and or anyone posing a threat to the gang’s illegal activities.
Laundered tens of thousands of dollars in drug dealing profits from sales of cocaine and methamphetamine into the purchase of a Victorville residence.
Warned victims of a 2007 home-invasion robbery not to appear at a police lineup or testify. A gang leader directed an associate to reward those who complied and punish those who had cooperated with police and prosecutors.
Gave a tire shop owner 24 hours to make a $30,000 extortion payment or provide a gang leader with a Hummer SUV. The business owner was warned that gang members knew where to find his relatives and he would be killed and his businesses torched if he failed to comply.
Source: Times staff writer