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Massive raid in Glassell Park nabs 44 Avenues gang members

September 22, 2009 |  9:53 am

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Under the cover of darkness this morning, about 1,200 heavily armed officers from the Los Angeles Police Department, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and several other agencies launched a major assault on the Avenues gang, hoping to deal a blow to one of Los Angeles' most notorious criminal groups.

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Warrants in hand, teams of officers departed a massive command center in Elysian Park around 3 a.m. and descended on dozens of homes in search of 54 alleged members or associates of the Avenues gang who were wanted on an array of federal charges related to the gang's extensive drug dealing, unsolved murders and other crimes.

Within hours, 44 of the men and women were in custody, according to LAPD Capt. Kevin McClure, who is overseeing the operation. The others remained at large and are being sought. Among the arrested was Tammy Armstrong, a state corrections officer accused of aiding members of the gang currently incarcerated. Several weapons were also confiscated.

With more than three dozen other suspects already in custody on unrelated crimes, the operation aimed to bring fresh criminal charges against 88 Avenues members or associates, a significant share of a gang that is believed to have about 400 members.

Some suspects were sought elsewhere in the city and in other counties, but the sweep focused on Glassell Park and other neighborhoods in the northeastern reaches of Los Angeles — the center of Avenues territory since the gang first surfaced in the 1950s.

There were no reports of officers encountering violent resistance. San Bernardino County sheriff's officers shot two aggressive dogs they encountered at one location, police said.

More typical of the morning was the scene that unfolded on Estara Street in Glassell Park. LAPD SWAT team members quietly surrounded a home in search of a pair of brothers, Norberto and Roberto Salazar. Using a bullhorn, a SWAT officer ordered the occupants out of the house. Several dazed looking women carrying small children wrapped in blankets emerged and were taken aside for questioning. They were followed shortly by Norberto Salazar, who was walked down the street in stiff plastic handcuffs and wearing baggy white shorts and a white tank top.

On the street corner, beneath a sign advertising check cashing at the El Ranchito meat market, Salazar spoke quietly with detectives for several minutes before being led away to a waiting car. He is accused of directing other Avenues members to commit several violent or drug-related crimes. His brother, who is accused in a beating of a man, was not found at the house.

The operation culminated a yearlong investigation of the gang that had been headed jointly by a unit of LAPD detectives that specializes in gang-related homicides and a DEA task force. The group turned its focus on the Avenues in the wake of the August 2008 slaying of Juan Abel Escalante, a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy. Escalante, 27, was gunned down outside of his parents' Cypress Park home early in the morning as he headed to work as a guard at the Men's Central Jail.

LAPD detectives led the murder investigation into the killing because it occurred within city boundaries. Within days of the shooting, agents from the DEA task force, which had previously investigated the Avenues, came to detectives with information they had gathered that indicated members of the gang may have been responsible.

That tip led to the arrest in December of two Avenues members in connection with the murder. Months later, a third member was taken into custody, and charges were brought against a fourth, who remains a fugitive. In the course of investigating the Escalante killing, however, the LAPD detectives and DEA agents delved into the inner workings of the Avenues and began compiling evidence related to a host of other alleged crimes.

Some of the information was collected during interrogations of Avenues members and others from the neighborhood who had been arrested by a special team of 54 uniformed gang officers deployed in the area. Much of the incriminating information, however, came from the suspects themselves as DEA agents secured approval from federal judges for an array of wiretaps that allowed them to listen in on gang members' phone conversations.

"They could have just stuck with Escalante," McClure said. "They could have said, 'We got what we came for,' packed it up and moved on to something that would have been easier. This operation was not a result of me telling them they have to do this. It is a result of this unit saying, 'There is more here, let's keep going.'"

Over the course of the investigation, cases were built against Avenues members for their alleged roles in six other unsolved murders and four attempted murders, police said. The bulk of the charges, however, involve extortion and other crimes that Avenues members and associates allegedly committed as part of the gang's extensive drug trafficking in the area, police say. Most of the Avenues members and associates included in the indictment are being charged under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which allows prosecutors to pursue more serious prison sentences.

At a planning briefing last week with representatives from the agencies involved, there was little question as to what had kept the group motivated.

With the auditorium at LAPD headquarters filled with a few hundred officers, a recording was played of the phone call Escalante's wife made to a 911 dispatcher after discovering him in the street. "If anyone has any doubt about the rationale or reason behind this operation, it was this," a detective said.

During a final briefing at the command post this morning, however, LAPD Cmdr. Pat Gannon reminded the officers, "This is not about payback. This is about us being professional, doing our jobs and putting people behind bars."

After several weeks of painstaking planning, the sweep went off without any major problems. Once taken into custody, suspects were transported back to the command post, which took on a surreal quality as the day's first light revealed dozens of handcuffed men and women being processed in an assembly-line fashion in the middle of a sprawling parking lot dotted with hundreds of police vehicles and catering trucks to feed hungry officers.

The Avenues gang, named for the avenues that cross Figueroa Street, has a long, ugly history dating back at least to the 1950s, when it was linked to many shootouts and killings. It is thought by some that the group's origins can be traced back to some of the hundreds of families displaced from Chavez Ravine, now home to Dodger Stadium, and the Rose Hill area.

The group's insignia, which many members have tattooed on their bodies, is a skull with a bullet hole in it and wearing a fedora. Various cliques of the Avenues claim Highland Park and parts of Cypress Park, Glassell Park and Eagle Rock as their territory. It is linked closely to the Mexican Mafia prison gang, which demands that the Avenues and other Eastside gangs send up a share of the taxes they collect from low-level drug dealers and others selling goods on their turf.

Today's sweep is hardly the first time law enforcement has taken on the Avenues. In 2002, the city attorney won an injunction against the gang, making it illegal for members to congregate throughout much of Highland Park, Glassell Park, Cypress Park and Eagle Rock. A few years later, federal prosecutors won hate-crime convictions against Avenues members for the killings of three black men between 1995 and 2000.

Government attorneys argued that the Avenues launched a campaign of violence to force black people out of the Highland Park area in the 1990s and targeted the men simply because of their race. In 2007, the city used a narcotics-abatement lawsuit to shut down the home of a family at the center of the Avenues' Drew Street clique.

At the time, then-City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo called the house the gang's "mother ship." In February of last year, the gang re-erupted into the city's public consciousness when police said Drew Street members gunned down a man as he stood on a curb holding his 2-year-old granddaughter's hand.

They brazenly took on police in a running gun battle, firing at officers with an AK-47 assault rifle in broad daylight. Most recently, in June 2008, the DEA task force that came to LAPD detectives with information on the Escalante killing conducted a similar, but smaller, operation to the one carried out today. That investigation named 70 defendants.

At the time, LAPD officials assured residents of the area that they would work to keep the gang from reclaiming control of the neighborhoods. Drug activity and violence in the area has slowed considerably in recent months, police said, but considering the size of today's operation, the gang has maintained a commanding presence.

More than last year's sweep, today's operation struck deeper at the guts of gang, targeting higher-level members who play central roles in running the day-to-day operations of the gang. Most prominent on the list of suspects taken into custody was Rudy Aguirre Jr. Aguirre had established himself as a crucial bridge to the outside for several of the gang's leaders in Pelican Bay State Prison, said Christopher Brunwin, the assistant U.S. attorney leading the effort to prosecute those arrested.

"The roots of this gang and others like it run so deep that the idea of completely eliminating it is not a realistic goal," said LAPD Deputy Chief Charlie Beck. "But eliminating its ability to operate as a criminal enterprise is realistic. We have taken a big step in that direction today."

-- Joel Rubin reporting from Glassell Park and Elysian Park

Photo: Law enforcement officers shackle one of the suspects arrested in a pre-dawn raid against the Avenues gang in Los Angeles. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times

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Video: Times staff writer Joel Rubin describes the scene

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