O.C. Gang Task Force Disbanding

O.C. Gang Task Force Disbanding
Serious crime was prevented by award-winning investigative unit, officials say. Federal funds were not renewed.
By Seema Mehta
Times Staff Writer

November 26 2002

Citing budget cuts, the Orange County district attorney’s office said Monday it is disbanding an award-winning investigative unit that focused on gambling, home-invasion robberies and other financial crimes committed by gangs.

The Regional Gang Enforcement Team, which brought together local, state and federal policing agencies to tackle crimes across the county, was funded by a nearly $3-million federal grant that has not been renewed, said Michelle Emard, spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office.

Investigators in the unit infiltrated gangs to gather data, and, in some cases, prevent crimes. The unit was involved in several high-profile cases, including the seizure of $5 million in counterfeit designer clothing in Westminster and the arrests of leaders of a large West Coast drug ring.

It was formed in 1999 by Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas, who cited its success in his reelection campaign. Rackauckas could not be reached for comment Monday, but other law enforcement officials expressed concern about the unit’s demise.

“It was extremely successful, not only in gathering intelligence on this whole underlying criminal element, but in making extremely effective arrests and preventing some serious crimes,” said Fullerton Police Chief Patrick E. McKinley, who served on the team’s board of directors.

McKinley said he worries that without the aggressive policing by the unit, some types of crimes will increase.

Santa Ana Police Chief Paul M. Walters, who is also on the unit’s board of directors, vowed to seek funding to restart it.

“We’re very much committed to keeping it,” he said. “Everyone knows these types of projects are the most successful way to police.”

Unlike territorial street gangs, those investigated by the unit are roving, and akin to organized crime. Cases involved murder for hire, home-invasion robberies and kidnapping for ransom.

In 2001, the team made 44 arrests, including people charged with murder, attempted murder, home-invasion and commercial robbery, sales of narcotics and machine guns, and other felonies.

It seized drugs, automatic weapons, handguns and $250,000, according to a September report from the district attorney’s office. Team members also aided the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and U.S. Customs.

During its first year, the unit received awards from the California Narcotics Officers Assn., the International Assn. of Asian Crime Investigators, the Orange Korean Institute for Human Rights and others.

One of the most publicized cases involving the unit resulted in the arrest of two leaders of an organized crime group that investigators say dominates the Ecstasy trade in Orange County. The men were arrested in a plot to murder the head of the group.

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