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13 Members of Vagos Gang Arrested in Sweep

Probe: Charges include possession of stolen explosives, illegal firearms and methamphetamine. Investigation was launched last year.

October 28, 1998|ANTONIO OLIVO and KEN ELLINGWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Federal and state law enforcement agents arrested 13 members of the Vagos motorcycle gang Tuesday in the San Fernando Valley, San Diego and Las Vegas, charging them with possessing stolen explosives, a cache of illegal firearms, and large amounts of methamphetamine and its ingredients.

The arrests, made in a coordinated sweep, resulted from a nearly two-year investigation into the Vagos gang headed by the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. From the same investigation, five other Vagos gang members were charged in May with kidnapping, robbery, drug possession and weapons offenses, said ATF Special Agent John D'Angelo.

The explosives--about 40 pounds of commercial blasting agents believed stolen from a construction site in the Imperial Valley--were found hidden in a house just outside of San Diego, D'Angelo said. About 60 machine guns, sawed-off shotguns and rifles were also found in the house, he said.

Three men in the house also had in their possession about 5 pounds of methamphetamine and 100 pounds of ingredients used to make the drug, sold to them by undercover federal agents, D'Angelo said. They were charged with a variety of drug and weapons crimes, he said.

Three members from Reseda, San Fernando and Northridge were charged with illegally possessing firearms, and several in Las Vegas were accused of kidnapping, torture, extortion and racketeering, ATF officials said. More weapons-related arrests in the Valley are expected later this week, said officials of the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles.

ATF officials said the investigation was launched in 1997 after informants tipped them off to plans within the 200-member gang to increase criminal activities in the southwestern U.S. The Vagos--which means "vagabonds" in Spanish--are rivals of the Hells Angels gang, with about 25 chapters in California, Nevada, Oregon and Mexico, ATF officials said.

"The scope and nature of the charges and the gun seizures speak volumes about the nature of the gang," said ATF Special Agent Richard Curd. "Hopefully, our work will have a lasting and debilitating effect on them."

D'Angelo said it was unclear what plans the gang had for the explosives and weapons in San Diego.

"It's not uncommon with these types of organizations where they find they need to arm themselves in such a way for protection," he said.

The Vagos are so wary of rival gangs and law enforcement agents that they allegedly kidnapped and tortured a man in Corona whom they suspected of stealing from them, ATF officials said. Several members beat the man for hours, trying to get him to confess to spying on behalf of another gang or federal agents, according to the agency.

"They were trying to intimidate him," D'Angelo said.

Into that atmosphere jumped one undercover federal agent whose mission was to document the crimes committed by Vagos gang members in the Los Angeles area, D'Angelo said.

Posing as a prospective member, the agent joined gang members at parties and meetings earlier this year, hoping to become initiated into the gang. As part of the initiation, he had to buy beer for the gang, work as a bodyguard at parties and guard members' motorcycles while they met with members from other states, D'Angelo said.

The agent was eventually turned down for membership after the Vagos hired a private investigator and did not like what was discovered, D'Angelo said.

"They did not feel comfortable with him," D'Angelo said, declining to elaborate. "They are very organized about backgrounding people. We pulled our agent out for his own safety."

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