Authorities arrested 10 members of the Vagos motorcycle gang suspected of drug trafficking and a rash of violence during a series of raids early Thursday across Southern California, a crackdown that comes less than two weeks after a Vagos member allegedly killed a rival Hells Angels member at a Nevada casino.
The arrests were the result of an 18-month investigation led by state investigators into one of the most "violent criminal" motorcycle gangs in the nation, authorities said. Members of the gang, which started in the Inland Empire in the 1960s, face allegations of conspiracy to commit murder, rape, weapons violations, money laundering and drug violations.
"It's a dangerous organization … that's responsible for putting drugs into our communities and schools," said Senior Special Agent in Charge David King of the state Department of Justice in Riverside. "These individuals are armed to protect their criminal enterprise, and they've shown how quickly they are willing to use their guns in public."
Law enforcement authorities Thursday executed 52 search warrants in San Bernardino, Riverside, Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Santa Barbara and Imperial counties. Arrest warrants also were issued for 12 high-ranking Vagos members, 10 of whom were in custody by late morning. Two associates also were arrested.
A team of officers from the San Bernardino Police Department and state Department of Justice took a battering ram to the door of Pastor Palafox of Colton, the Vagos international president, bursting into the house with weapons drawn.
The Vagos leader was gone and remains at large, though officers carted off evidence from the house. The only outside indication of who lived there was the black Harley-Davidson emblem on the home's curbside address.
Authorities also raided a Vagos clubhouse in the remote Riverside County town of Anza, as well as one in North Hollywood. More than 300 weapons were seized, including 100 from a home in Alhambra.
"This gang … has been terrorizing our community for years," San Bernardino County Dist. Atty. Michael Ramos said at an afternoon news conference. "This is a major, major takedown."
Beverly Hills attorney Joseph Yanny, who has represented Vagos members in past cases, called the allegations "trumped-up nonsense" and said none of those taken into custody were members of the motorcycle club.
"Eighty percent of the men in this club are clean and sober with zero tolerance for illegal activities," Yanny said. "They're not a gang, they are a club."
A Northern California Vagos member has been implicated in the Sept. 23 shooting that killed Jeffrey "Jethro" Pettigrew, 51, president of the San Jose chapter of the Hells Angels, during a motorcycle festival in Sparks, Nev.
Pettigrew was inside John Ascuaga's Nugget Casino Resort when he was shot four times in the back, authorities said. Last week, Vagos gang member Ernesto Manuel Gonzalez, 53, of San Jose, was arrested in San Francisco on suspicion of murder in the shooting. Investigators from the Inland Empire are assisting with the investigation.
Authorities on Thursday also asked for the public's help in identifying the victim of a suspected gang rape by four Vagos members at the Starting Gate bar in Los Alamitos in March. The victim has yet to step forward.
"We believe she's been threatened and intimidated into not reporting the rape," King said. "We're trying to identify her and let her know that she will be protected."
More than 25 Vagos members and associates were taken into custody before Thursday's raids. Authorities also had recovered a rocket launcher, grenade launcher, body armor and, in a raid in Los Angeles, 20 kilos of cocaine.
The state Department of Justice launched "Operation Simple Green" in 2010 to dismantle the Vagos' extensive narcotics operation, which included the distribution of cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin and marijuana. The Vagos' narcotics suppliers include the Mexican drug cartels, among others, San Bernardino Police Officer Erick Bennett said.
Bennett said the operation, born out of a simple narcotics investigation that led to the Vagos, eventually uncovered evidence of an unsuccessful murder-for-hire plot, two suspected rapes, extortion and auto theft.