‘Major takedown’ targets members of Glassell Park’s Drew Street gang

In an early morning raid, more than 500 local, state and federal investigators swarm the Northeast Los Angeles neighborhood to arrest dozens of reputed members of the Avenues gang clique.
By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Andrew Blankstein and Sam Quinones Times Staff Writers
June 26, 2008
In a sweeping crackdown on a notorious street gang, more than 500 federal, state and local investigators, including 10 SWAT teams, swarmed northeast Los Angeles before dawn this morning to arrest dozens of alleged members of the Avenues gang.

The focus, authorities said, was on the gang’s Drew Street clique, which has kept tenacious control over a Glassell Park neighborhood despite a series of efforts by federal and local law enforcement agencies over the years.

“This is a major case and a major takedown this morning,” said Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office.

By 8 a.m., authorities arrested 46 people, 28 of whom are named in the indictment. The others were taken into custody on other charges. Another 30 people named in the indictment already were in custody, police said.

In all, the federal racketeering indictment names more than 70 people and is scheduled to be unsealed later this morning.

“It reads like a crime novel,” Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Sergio Diaz said of the indictment. “Witness intimidation, drive-by shootings, hate crimes, you name it.”

This morning’s sting was the culmination of a 10-month investigation.

“These thugs have been preying on this community for generations. This was designed to send a powerful message and we sent that message this morning,” said LAPD Assistant Chief Earl Paysinger. Paysinger said neighbors of the Drew Street gang had “lived so long in fear they don’t know what freedom means.”

Senior Assistant City Atty. Bruce Riordan, who has prosecuted Mexican Mafia and 18th Street gang members, called the allegations against the Drew Street gang “the worst witness intimidation and tampering I’ve seen.”

He said the gang’s tactics had effectively silenced neighbors and kept witnesses from telling police what they knew. Some incidents date back to 2003 and include allegations that gang members tried to murder police officers.

The action this morning included abatements served on the owners of 10 houses or apartment buildings, who are now required to remove gang members from their buildings.

Two children were taken into custody by child welfare officials. Seized in the raids were 23 weapons, as well as unspecified amounts of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana and cash. Police used flash-bang devices and forced entries while serving the search warrants.

A community meeting has been scheduled for 6 tonight at the Glassell Park Community Center, 3750 N. Verdugo Road, for law enforcement officials to talk to residents about the arrests and indictment.

LAPD Deputy Chief Jim McDonnell said they called the meeting to “put them [neighbors] at ease and explain what we did.”

In the neighborhood today, police officers driving golf carts announced the meeting using bullhorns. They handed out leaflets in Spanish and English.

Mercedes Martinez, 48, got a flyer while walking with her children, Paula, 13, and Javier, 14, to her car.

“In the street they have lots of problems because of the Avenues gang,” she said, adding that she felt safer now after the police raid.

Standing on Drew Street, Eusebia Ortiz, 47, said she woke up this morning to the sounds of what she thought were bombs. Ortiz said she planned to go to the meeting to get more details.

“I would like to see it become calmer at least for the small children,” said Ortiz, who has six grandchildren who live in area and are elementary school age.

But the raids upset others.

Olga Martinez, 81, said she was awakened by police breaking down the front door of her Isabelle Street home at 4:30 a.m., with an arrest warrant for her son for drinking in public.

“These gestapos came in with guns, machine guns,” she said. “They looked horrible in their black outfits. They scared the hell out of me. . . . I didn’t know what to think. It was a nightmare. I’ve never seen such a thing. Only in the movies. For a can of beer? That wasn’t right.”

In February, the neighborhood was locked down for six hours after gang members fired on police. The violent midday confrontation began when Drew Street gang members opened fire on Marcos Salas, 36, near Aragon Elementary School as he held the hand of his 2-year-old granddaughter. Salas turned to protect the girl and fell to the ground with her in his arms. She was unharmed. Salas, shot 17 times, died at a hospital.

As the gunmen drove off, people on the street starting shooting at them. Undercover officers headed to Drew Street to watch for the shooters’ car. Within minutes, armed Drew Street gang members arrived. The gunmen who had allegedly shot Salas got out of the car, firing AK-47s and other weapons at the officers.

One gunman was killed and another wounded. The resulting standoff shut down dozens of blocks of Northeast Los Angeles for six hours.

Authorities said the crackdown was underway at the time of the February incident, but was stepped up afterward.

The wild shootout took place nearly six years after the city attorney hit the Avenues with a gang injunction making it illegal for known members to congregate or ride in cars together throughout much of Highland Park, Glassell Park, Cypress Park and Eagle Rock.

In 2007, the city attorney’s office closed a house on Drew Street that had been the hub of drug dealing. The owner of the house, Maria Leon, 44, is reputed to be the matriarch of a large extended family of drug-dealing gang members.

In April of this year, she was arrested and charged with felony reentry into the United States. Leon, an illegal immigrant and mother of 13, had a criminal record that included three drug arrests dating to the early 1990s and had been deported twice previously to her native Mexico.

During one raid at her house 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. Also in the house were six children under 10, including Leon’s youngest child, a 3-month-old boy.

The latest enforcement effort against the Drew Street clique began about 4 a.m., when law enforcement officials mobilized in Glassell Park near Fletcher Drive and Estrara Avenue. Agencies involved worked under the Los Angeles High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force that includes 18 federal, state and local agencies including Los Angeles and Glendale police, and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

Most of the warrants had been served by 7, according to Sarah Pullen, a spokeswoman for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration’s L.A. office.

Those arrested are being processed in the parking lot of Dodger Stadium, Pullen said, “Just because of the volume.” They will later be transported to the federal detention center downtown.

“Hopefully we’re going to have a positive impact here in the community,” Pullen said from the scene. “Our goal is to reduce the threat of drug trafficking, gun trafficking and gang activity throughout the L.A. area.”

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