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'FUNDED by the CROOKS' : Police Hail Bonanza in Out-of-Town Drug Battle

May 05, 1988|STEPHANIE O'NEILL | Times Staff Writer

Early in the evening of June 2, 1986, a Glendale narcotics investigator knocked on the door of a South Gate home, search warrant in hand. At the same time, other Glendale officers, with assistance from three local police departments, knocked on doors in Sunland, Sylmar, Montclair and Pasadena.

Within three hours, they had arrested 17 suspects, seized 812 pounds of cocaine, $275,000 in cash and four new cars.

Department officials say the operation, which took Glendale police into the jurisdictions of four other police departments, was just good police work, the sort of thing needed to crush drug networks that respect no boundaries.

More guardedly, they also concede that it made good sense financially. Under recent anti-drug laws, the department got to keep much of the cash and had its choice of either using the cars or selling them for profit.

40 Major Outside Raids

In the last three years, a team of Glendale police officers has conducted about 40 major drug raids outside the city's borders, confiscating hundreds of pounds of cocaine and seizing millions in cash and property.

In one of the department's more tantalizing out-of-town ventures, Glendale investigators, working alone in areas as distant as Arcadia and Canyon Country, confiscated a 1986 black GTS Ferrari, cocaine, cash and military hardware.

They haven't decided what to do with the Ferrari. Though it could bring $70,000, police might not want to sell the car because it could prove useful to the unorthodox, five-officer detail that has been so successful it has already paid its $330,000 annual budget two years into the future with forfeited funds.

"We're entirely funded by the crooks," said Lt. Mike Post, head of the department's drug enforcement bureau.

Called the "Major Violators Unit," the detail focuses on big-time drug rings--most of which operate outside the city's borders.

To date, the unit has been involved in 54 major cases. It has arrested 245 suspected drug smugglers and dealers and has seized 16 vehicles, more than $8.5 million in cash and 2,666 pounds of cocaine with a street value estimated at $120 million, Post said.

Routinely, its officers travel as far north as Santa Barbara, as far south as San Diego.

"Staying inside your area is almost impossible," Post said. "Out of necessity you are going to be all over the map here in the Los Angeles area."

So far, through the complex and sometimes slow process for claiming seized property, Glendale has received 13 cars and about $1.3 million in cash, Post said. The department is expected to receive another $2.2 million and three more cars later this year, he said.

Done With Federal Blessing

The detail, inspired by the federal Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, is one of a handful of such specialized units operated by Southern California police departments with the blessing of federal law enforcement agencies. Sometimes, the local units will lead their own investigations, other times they work as a large task force assisting the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency or each other, said Anthony Ricevuto, a DEA supervisor in Los Angeles.

Police departments in Simi Valley, West Covina and Torrance operate similar full-time details, Ricevuto said.

Since 1985, such units have helped the DEA rake in nearly $1.2 billion in cash and property from criminals nationwide, said Cornelius Dougherty, spokesman for the DEA in Washington.

Following drug leads outside city limits is, in itself, nothing new for most local narcotics forces.

"If your investigations led you outside the city, you weren't going to stop just because the street signs went from white to blue," Post said.

But it was not until passage of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act that Glendale officials decided to regularly pursue major investigations with little or no direct tie to Glendale, Post said.

That law established civil procedures allowing local agencies to claim as much as 90% of the cash and property taken from suspected drug traffickers through major investigations. The remainder, a minimum of 10%, goes to the federal government. If more than one local agency is involved in the seizure, the departments divide the forfeitures.

From the Jan. 29 case, for instance, Glendale police are asking for all but the government's share of the $186,000 seized money because the department worked alone. The department has also filed claims on the seized vehicles, which include a red 1988 Honda Prelude, a black 1987 Nissan 4-wheel drive truck and the Ferrari.

Some cars obtained this way are used for general department transportation. Others are used solely as undercover cars. Still others, especially expensive cars, may be traded in for several less expensive models, Post said.

Cocaine seized in raids is taken to a private incinerating company at an undisclosed location where "it roars and burns for a couple hours" until it is gone, Post said.

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