A jury Tuesday voted for the death penalty for an Azusa gang member who took part in a crime wave that rocked the tranquil San Gabriel Valley city in the early part of the decade.
Ralph “Swifty” Flores, 26, sat stoically as a clerk read the verdict in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
Flores -- who had grown a mustache over the gang tattoo “Azusa 13" inked below his nose -- was convicted last year of killing four people.
For Azusa, the case marks the end to a violent chapter in which a handful of gang members called the “trigger clique” terrorized the town with a series of shootings, killings, robberies and hate crimes targeting blacks. Their rampage lasted from 1999 to 2004.
Besides Flores, seven other Azusa 13 gang members were convicted of the crimes and sentenced to lengthy prison terms -- five of them in one 2004 trial.
“It was a violent time for the city,” said Sgt. Mike Bertelsen, Azusa’s gang expert. “We were having a murder a month at the end of 2002.”
What brought this violent period to an end “was a combination of citizens, the clergy, City Council and police all working together,” said City Manager Francis Delach. “I think that had a big impact.”
Azusa’s experience shows how a few gang members following directives from the Mexican Mafia prison gang can become a public policy issue, scaring residents while taxing the budget and police resources of an otherwise peaceful town.
For more than 15 years, the Mexican Mafia prison gang has ordered some Southern California street gangs to “tax” drug dealers and funnel the proceeds to gang members. In some areas, Mexican Mafia members have ordered street gangs to attack blacks.
Directives from the prison gang “make their way out to the street. People on the street want to make a name for themselves,” said Azusa Police Capt. Sam Gonzalez.
Two Mexican Mafia associates -- Gabriel “Downer” Aguilar and Robert “Thumper” Ramirez -- were paroled to Azusa in early 2002 and allegedly began organizing the gang to collect from local drug dealers.
Azusa police say both men were acting on authority of Jacques “Jacko” Padilla, the Mexican Mafia member reputed to control Azusa gangs and drug-dealing from his maximum-security cell.
For a time, Aguilar lived on a tier with Padilla at Pelican Bay State Prison, enhancing his reputation on Azusa streets, say police and prison officials.
The results were felt quickly in this quiet working-class town of 47,000. After only a couple of homicides a year, Azusa saw six in 2002.
Hate crimes spiked to 17 in 2000 and fell to nine in 2001, including three firebombings of homes of African Americans. Most of the hate crimes were attributed to Azusa 13, whose members would drive by and shoot into apartments where blacks lived.
Azusa’s population is only 3% black. “There were occasional sporadic hate crimes before that, but nowhere near this number and to this extreme,” Gonzalez said.
In the 2004 trial of Aguilar, Ramirez and three others, an Azusa 13 gang member named Eduardo Caballo testified that the gang would routinely go “hunting” black people.
He testified that one night in September 2002, finding no black men to shoot, they shot 49-year-old Nadine Nowlin, a black woman standing outside her apartment. Nowlin lived but lost her spleen and later testified in the case.
All of this stunned the town, which became known as the hate crime capital of the San Gabriel Valley.
Before that, “I was totally unaware of any hate crime in Azusa,” said Rick MacDonald, pastor at Christian Family Center since the early 1970s.
The city formed a hate-crime task force, then a human relations commission. It began an annual “Hands Across Azusa” multicultural celebration on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.
Azusa police, meanwhile, drew on gang officers from around the San Gabriel Valley.
In an undercover operation, police set up a storefront called A Peace of Africa, stocked with goods from Africa, hoping to entice the gang into committing a hate crime. Undercover black officers staffed the store and police staked it out around the clock.
Police closed the storefront after a week. Had officers been able to keep the store running longer, “I’m sure we’d have seen a hate crime committed,” Gonzalez said. “But it was too labor-intensive and too dangerous because of the hunting mentality” of Azusa 13.
A multi-agency gang task force, meanwhile, watched the gang and its associates in prison.
It took the arrest of no more than eight gang members in 2003 and 2004 for the violence to stop.
The city registered one homicide each of the last two years, and only two hate crimes, only one of which was gang-related.
Aware of the effect a few criminals can have, police now routinely search the homes of parolees and probationers to make sure they comply with their conditions. The city since raised salaries for police. “It’s had a payoff to the safety of the community,” Delach said.
Two large Latino churches have started gang ministries. More businesses are moving into Azusa and the city is negotiating with Target to open a store there.
The violence “gave the community an awareness of something most of us were naive about,” said MacDonald, the pastor. “It caused parents to talk to children, teachers to talk to students. I think positive things have taken place because of that.”
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A litany of violence
The Azusa 13 street gang was responsible for a wave of killings and other violent crime, some of which police say was racially motivated, dating to the late 1990s. Among the crimes gang members have been charged with or are suspected in:
May 14, 1999: Slaying of 16-year-old Chris Lynch, a black youth who was at a party with a Latino girl in Azusa 13-claimed territory.
Aug. 8, 2000: Slaying of Gejuan Salle, a black man and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center nurse, who was shot as he was walking outside an auto parts store. The case remains unsolved.
Dec. 5, 2001: Firebombings at homes of three black families. The case remains unsolved.
Sept. 3, 2002: Attack on black resident Nadine Nowlin, who was shot in the back outside her apartment complex as she was saying goodbye to a friend. Nowlin lost her spleen in the shooting and later testified against five gang members charged in the crime.
Nov. 19, 2003: Slaying of Claudia Chenet, who was shot to death outside her apartment complex after she was mistaken for a police informant in a drug investigation.
Dec. 25, 2004: Fatal shooting of Miguel Reyes, who was killed outside a Christmas party.
Source: police and court records