70 arrested, drugs seized in massive parole sweep targeting gangs
About 700 officers from federal, state and local agencies hammered on the doors of about 400 parolees across Los Angeles County early Wednesday morning in what officials called the largest surprise parole sweep ever.
Authorities made at least 70 arrests, confiscated dozens of weapons, and seized 30 grams of cocaine and 156 grams of marijuana. Officers also discovered 20 fully grown marijuana plants, impounded five pitbulls that may have been used for dogfighting, and took a child into protective custody after her father was arrested.
About 7,000 of Los Angeles County’s 16,000 parolees have gang ties. It’s common practice for corrections officers to make periodic checks on those parolees, but rarely are they cuffed before breakfast as a team of officers searches their homes.
“Can I kiss my grandma goodbye?” asked a parolee whose gang name is Trucha, a Spanish slang term meaning beware.
On a search of his home, officers discovered a shaved key sometimes used to break into cars, two ounces of marijuana and correspondence with a fellow Lincoln Heights gang member in Pelican Bay Prison. Trucha will serve an estimated sentence of three months for violating parole.
“Yeah, go ahead,” an officer said.
Trucha pecked his grandma on the cheek and comforted her in Spanish before stalking away, cursing.
The last large-scale parole sweep occurred last year with Operation Disarm, which targeted weapons offenders and led to 77 arrests. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation also conducts large annual sweeps on Halloween to target sex offenders statewide. Wednesday’s sweep, termed Operation Guardian, was intended to counter a seasonal spike in violent gang crime, authorities said.
“It keeps them on their toes,” said Parole Agent Rick McKail. “They don’t know when we might come out.”
Parole is meant to be an extension of jail, McKail said. Parolees get a chance to conform to society’s expectations, but they agree to a regimen of good behavior to which there are no exceptions.
Arthur Mosqueda, an assistant manager for the department’s Los Angeles division, said the sweeps send a message. But the armed, large-scale confrontations rub some parolees the wrong way.
One parolee cursed at an agent who unholstered a gun in front of his 2-month-old son. Soon after, officers discovered in his apartment marijuana and a simulation handgun that fires ball bearings and arrested him.
“By doing these surprised or unannounced searchs, you have the opportunity to take guns off the streets …then we’re all safer,” Mosqueda said.
Parole officers said they are sometimes the only buffer the parolees have against looming violence and the turbulence of gang life. They push parolees to enroll in rehabilitation programs and connect convicts with employers who are willing to overlook rap sheets.
Sometimes, they’re too late. Later that morning, parole officers pounded repeatedly on the door and windows of a parolee’s apartment in Highland Park until they spotted a drying smear of blood on the concrete in front of the complex.
Thomas Salinas, 25, was shot in the abdomen the day before, authorities confirmed. He was in critical condition in a hospital Wednesday but was expected to survive.
“This happens sometimes, unfortunately,” McKail said. “They wind up back in prison or dead or back in the hospital.”
Police are investigating the shooting as gang-related, and his parole officer, Luis Rizzo, said he suspects the incident is related to Salinas’ lifestyle.
“He just kept having those crazy parties,” Rizzo said.
For many parolees, the raids were little more than an unwelcome disruption.
A shirtless Highland Park gang member known as Casper yawned widely as he was cuffed and frisked, hunching his shoulders against the predawn chill. One of the 10 police officers swarming his home asked him about the tapestry of tattoos covering his body, as two chihuahua puppies gamboled around black boots.
The young man was quickly cleared and went back to sleep.
“Casper’s doing well,” McKail said. “He’s in school and he’s staying out of trouble.”
-- Frank Shyong