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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Multi-Agency Group Puts Oxnard Gangs on Notice

Law enforcement: The nearly year-old task force has become a powerful weapon, stepping up surveillance and making several key arrests.

May 21, 2000|TINA DIRMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OXNARD — Over the years, Oxnard Police Det. Terry Burr has grown accustomed to the onslaught of complaints heard at regular meetings of Ventura County's gang intelligence officers:

Oxnard gang members assaulted locals in Ventura. Oxnard gang members took off on a weekend car-stealing spree in Thousand Oaks. Oxnard gang members fought with rivals at a Santa Barbara street festival.

"Everybody has something to say about Oxnard gang members," Burr said.

But Burr and others are confident things are about to change, thanks to the efforts of a multi-agency task force formed last year to zero in on the city's most active and violent gangs.

The Violent Crime Task Force, which will be a year old in July, boasts 16 members, made up of five Oxnard officers, four county probation officers and a representative from the Sheriff's Department, district attorney's office, Immigration and Naturalization Service, state parole, U.S. attorney general's office, U.S. marshal's office and the FBI. Each department covers personnel costs, while federal grants pay for equipment and overtime.

Operating out of a secret location in Oxnard, the task force has become a powerful weapon to combat gang activity. The team has stepped up gang surveillance, improved record keeping of gang movements and made several key arrests.

Moreover, every officer on the task force has been deputized as a federal agent. That means many of the arrests made by the team can be prosecuted in federal court, bringing much stiffer penalties. It also allows officers to follow Oxnard gang members when they cross city and county borders to commit crimes.

"The gang members just don't know what's hit them," Burr said. "This is unheard of. They are used to seeing one gang investigator. They give them some misleading information, and that's it. That's not happening now and it's just paralyzing them."

It didn't take long for the task force to swing into action. Just a few weeks after the new unit was started, informants in the County Jail tipped authorities about a hit being arranged by two jail inmates on an Oxnard detective, also a task force member.

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After one of the inmates involved was released, he was kept under tight surveillance. Four days later he was arrested on parole violations, including continued association with gang members, authorities said. The task force also worked successfully to get his accomplice--who was in the country illegally--deported before he could be released from jail.

"That really brought the team together right off the bat," said FBI Agent Richard Kelly, who heads the task force. "It showed how successful we could be."

Since then more arrests have followed, including those of five so-called shot-callers--or influential gang members, authorities said.

"Once you eliminate those guys," Kelly said, "the entire structure falls apart."

INS Agent Brandon Currie is also making life tough for criminals operating in La Colonia. With a stack of files kept at his fingertips, the officer knows in a matter of minutes whether someone who has been stopped is in the country illegally, which could result in immediate deportation.

And if they have already been deported once, the offenders can be arrested and charged with a federal offense that could garner prison time.

Over the past 10 months the team has helped deport nine people. Another eight have been charged with the federal crime of illegally reentering the country--at least one a shot-caller, a distinction that in August earned a five-year prison term.

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But so far the task force's most effective tool has been increased surveillance. Team members, dressed in plain clothes, now have enough manpower to cruise the streets following probationers or suspected criminals.

"Gang members are used to driving around, committing their crimes, then maybe weeks later a gang officer asks about it." Burr said. "Now, we're right there, right away, sometimes even before the crime happens."

In one recent case, undercover officers working in La Colonia were keeping surveillance on three teenagers who were throwing gang signs at passing cars--apparently looking for a fight.

The teenagers later attacked a man on a bike wearing a Red Sox cap--the symbol of a rival gang. The teens attacked the man, kicking, punching and yelling gang slogans before they let their victim go.

Detectives called for backup and stopped the attackers as they sped through a nearby residential neighborhood. The victim was too terrified to press charges. But with a carload of detectives seeing the events as they unfolded, it didn't matter.

"We just watched their facial features as we told them we watched the whole thing," Burr said. "They said, 'My gosh, you've been following us for the last two hours.' You can't fight a group of detectives who watched you do the crime."

All three pleaded guilty. One was sentenced to three years in prison for violating parole.

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