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Crackdown on Gangs Pays Off as Deaths Fall

February 16, 1992|MIKE WARD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

POMONA — Seven people died as the result of gang violence in Pomona in 1991.

Sadly, this is good news, statistically. The seven deaths--among 24 criminal homicides reported in the city last year--represent a sharp reduction from 1990, when 23 of 34 homicides were gang-related.

Police Capt. Chuck Heilman said the reduction is, at least partially, a product of tough law enforcement and harsher sentences made possible by a relatively new state law.

Last year, the Police Department increased its gang unit from two officers to 12 and began working closely with parole and probation officers to monitor gang members, often making surprise visits to their homes.

"We do sweeps," Heilman said. "We spend a day looking through their rooms, their houses. Those that we find in violation go to jail. Those that we don't . . . are left with the thought that we're coming back. We'll announce when--when we knock at the door.

"Our attitude is that they're special, and we're going to treat them special--by putting them in the system and arresting them when we can."

Heilman said he has no illusion that such tough action alone will eradicate gangs.

"Law enforcement just kind of deals with the mess," the captain said. "People have to get away from the mentality that criminal justice is the fix. . . . The fix is in social services, rehabilitation.

"If you go into a gang neighborhood, you'll find lots of problems. From the time he's born until the time he's pulling a trigger on somebody, (a gang member) is not getting any parenting the way parenting is intended to make good citizens. . . . Unless you change a number of things, from parenting to education, the problem is going to be around for a long time."

But aggressive law enforcement has reduced gang violence in Pomona, at least temporarily, Heilman said. The effort has involved police, the Los Angeles County Probation Department and district attorney's office, and the state Parole Department.

The most serious gang cases land on the desks of Deputy Dist. Attys. Dennis E. Ferris and Thomas C. Falls, who prosecute gang members for crimes--mostly murders and attempted murders--in Pomona and nearby communities.

"We try to identify guys who are shooters, or are likely to be shooters, and take them off the streets," said Ferris, who takes a hard line toward "gangbangers."

"In my opinion, if a kid has been caught with a gun two or three times and has one or two dope cases, he ought to be put to sleep when he turns 18," he said, cynically.

But Ferris' disgust is real, coming from prosecuting dozens of gang members who have committed terrible crimes--often shooting innocent children--and have shown no regret.

"I don't see remorse," he said of the defendants. "I see sorrow for getting caught."

The pattern, Ferris said, is illustrated by the case of Eddie (Casper) Linnett, a Pomona gang member whose repeated difficulties with the law escalated from sniffing glue and truancy over the years to attempted murder. In 1985, Linnett participated in a drive-by shooting that was intended to harm members of a rival gang but resulted in wounds to two innocent 12-year-olds.

In 1986, Linnett--nicknamed after Casper, the comics' "friendly ghost," because he was one of his gang's few white, non-Latino members--was sentenced to seven years in prison.

But while on parole five years later, Linnett was arrested for a nearly identical crime. Ferris said Linnett, now 36, was apparently teaching a 15-year-old relative how to do a drive-by shooting. Linnett and his companion were looking for rival gang members but mistakenly shot at a group of people preparing to go on a camping trip. An 18-year-old man was shot in an eye.

The second shooting, though similar to the first, led to a different sentence. Pomona Superior Court Judge Gregory C. O'Brien last November ordered Linnett to serve three consecutive life terms, plus 11 years, which means that he will not be eligible for parole until he is in his mid-80s.

Ferris said the lengthy term was made possible by a 1988 state law on street terrorism that allows enhancement of criminal penalties for gang members. Under the law, a gang member sentenced to life must serve at least 15 years before being eligible for parole.

Ferris said judges are giving such lengthy sentences that gang members are beginning to take notice. And even if the longer sentences do not deter others, the veteran prosecutor said, at least those imprisoned will not be harming anyone for a long time.

Pomona Detective Dexter Cole said the city has 15 gangs, totaling about 1,800 members. So far this year, he said, police have classified one murder, the drive-by shooting of a 15-year-old boy, as gang-related.

Contrary to popular belief, Cole said, gang members are not just shooting each other. Of the 30 gang-related homicides in Pomona in the last two years, only eight victims were gang members.

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