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Major police raid targets L.A.'s notorious Avenues gang

September 22, 2009 |  4:58 am


Hundreds of police officers and federal law enforcement agents launched a major assault on the Avenues gang this morning, hoping to deal a blow to an elusive group they say is responsible for some of Los Angeles' most notorious street crime.

Under the cover of darkness around 3 a.m., roughly 1,200 heavily armed officers from the Los Angeles Police Department, the Drug Enforcement Administration and several other agencies dispersed from a command post near the LAPD’s training academy in Elysian Park.

Warrants in hand, they descended on dozens of homes in search of 53 alleged members or associates of the Avenues gang wanted on an array of federal charges related to extensive drug dealing, unsolved murders and other crimes.

Forty-three suspects already are in custody on unrelated charges. The operation was aimed to bring new 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, 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 armed resistance. San Bernardino sheriff's officers say they shot two aggressive dogs they encountered at one location.

It was not immediately clear how many of the suspects had been found at their homes and taken into custody. The names of the suspects and the crimes they were accused of also were not immediately known, pending the unsealing of the indictments.

The arrests culminated a yearlong investigation of the gang run by a unit of LAPD detectives that specializes in gang-related homicides and a DEA task force.

The Avenues came under scrutiny 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 the LAPD with information they had gathered that indicated members from 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 wire taps that allowed them to listen in on gang members’ phone conversations.

"They could have just stuck with Escalante," said LAPD Capt. Kevin McClure, who oversees the detective unit. “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, said a top LAPD gang detective involved in the operation. He requested that his name not be used because of concerns over retaliation by Avenues members.

The bulk of the charges are for 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 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.

At the meeting, officers reviewed the complicated logistics involved in a gang sweep of such a large magnitude. With more than a dozen targets located on one street alone, the routes each team of officers would take and the order of their deployment had to be painstakingly planned.

Officers were instructed to bring suspects back to the command post for processing wearing only clothes and a pair of shoes. Any jewelry, cellphones or other belongings would clog up what promised to be an already hectic assembly line of alleged criminals.  Staff from the state’s Child Protective Services department would be on hand to handle children found in any of the homes, officers were told.

The 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 areas.

The group’s insignia, which many members have tattooed on their bodies, is a skull with a bullet hole, 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 policy say 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 in the area has slowed considerably in recent months, the detective said, but considering the size of today’s operation, the gang clearly has maintained a commanding presence in the area.

"They’ve owned that community for a long, long time," the detective said. "Only time will tell for sure, but I think this will be a blow that will finally make a lasting impact."

-- Joel Rubin

Photo: Several men suspected of being members or associates of the Avenues gang are held in a booking area after being arrested during a predawn raid. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times