California: Hundreds of officers raid the homes of ethnic Cambodians suspected of running a drug distribution network
As part of a new state crackdown on gangs, hundreds of law enforcement officers raided the homes of ethnic Cambodians here Wednesday, arresting suspected leaders of a drug distribution network that authorities said stretched to several states.
Calling violent street gangs "domestic terrorism" that affects ordinary citizens every day, state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown said the operation was a model for his plans to step up the state's assistance to police chiefs who want help in combating gangs.
"This is terrorism in the antisocial sense in that people are committed to disrupting neighborhoods of which they are a part," he said in an interview after the raids. "I want [police chiefs] to know that you can call on the attorney general for help, and if we don't have the resources, we will go back to the governor for more."
In the first such operation since Brown took office this year, state Department of Justice agents and local law enforcement officers served two dozen search warrants at homes of members of the Loc Town Crips.
Officials said the gang used text messaging and private parcel services to sell marijuana, methamphetamine and ecstasy in North Carolina, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Ohio. In return, gang members allegedly received cash and firearms, which officials said were sometimes used in drive-by shootings.
At least 32 members were arrested Wednesday on a variety of weapons and drug charges, and others were being sought. Police seized 26 firearms, including an AK-47 assault rifle, plus two bulletproof vests and modest quantities of drugs and cash.
Stockton Police Chief Wayne Hose told a news conference that he turned to the attorney general's office for help about six months ago after the Loc Town Crips became increasingly violent, accounting for a large portion of local robberies and shootings. "No agency can do it alone," Hose said.
In recent months, officials say, the state's gang-suppression enforcement team and local authorities intercepted $50,000, 12 ounces of methamphetamine and six handguns in packages that the gang allegedly shipped via United Parcel Service, DHL and Federal Express.
"Today's major takedown ends the reign of one of the most sophisticated and vicious gangs operating in California today," Brown said.
His office said about a dozen California cities plagued by gang problems have requested help from the gang-suppression enforcement team started by former state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer.
Officials declined to name the locales but noted that gang crime has put immense strain on police departments in many small and mid-size cities in recent years.
"It is impacting not just larger cities, but cities like Stockton, Fresno, Salinas and Oakland," said Pete Sarna, deputy director of the Division of Law Enforcement of the state Department of Justice. "What once was viewed as a Los Angeles problem has become more widespread."
Stockton, an inland seaport and agricultural center of more than 265,000 in the San Joaquin Valley, is a fast-growing city with older, modest neighborhoods, sprawling subdivisions and broad commercial boulevards.
But, as with most cities, gangs have thrived — and officials say one of them is the long-established Loc Town Crips, whose 100 members tend to be U.S.-born and are not formally allied with the Crips gang in Los Angeles, though they wear the same blue colors. Some members have boldly posted photos of themselves on the Internet, flashing gang signs.
In the early morning hours Wednesday, more than 300 officers, including state agents, the San Joaquin County sheriff's office and local police from Stockton and surrounding communities descended on two dozen homes where members live.
Reporters were taken along on some of the raids. Several of the houses they visited were pocked with bullet holes from drive-by shootings by rival gangs directed at alleged Loc Town Crips who lived there.
In one quiet block of $600,000 to $700,000 homes, with thick green lawns and earth-tone paint jobs, neighbors said they experienced two shooting incidents between February and the end of April.
Neighbors said more than 30 shots were fired at the gang house in the second incident, and that some of the occupants came out and returned fire. The gunfire also damaged homes on either side, breaking a window and penetrating stucco walls. A Lincoln Navigator in the gang members' driveway still had a bullet hole in a door.
"It's bad," said a neighbor, Andrew Villanueva, who moved eight months ago to what he thought was a safe neighborhood. "We called 911. Gunshots were fired. Bullet casings were all around the area."
Another neighbor, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she feared retaliation, said residents were angry and felt helpless to do anything about the gang problem.
"It's very frustrating and unsettling not knowing if it's going to happen again," she said.
Not far away, in a tidy cul-de-sac of spacious homes, Ramesh Patel said the house he had built two years ago was riddled with about eight bullets at 2:30 a.m. May 26 when gunmen fired dozens of rounds apparently intended for alleged gang members who lived next door.
Their house was raided Wednesday.
"There was a terrible sound — rat, tat, tat, tat, tat," Patel recalled of the gunfire. "It sounded like a machine gun."
Patel, an accountant, has filled bullet holes with stucco patch and installed a security camera that he monitors on a large-screen television.
"One of the biggest concerns with the gang problem," said Sarna of the attorney general's office, "is it is creeping into nice new neighborhoods like this."
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