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California and the West

13 Indicted in Violence Led by Prison Gang

Crime: Officials say the Pelican Bay inmates belong to Nuestra Familia and gave orders to foot soldiers outside the prison.

April 24, 2001|MARIA L. La GANGA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — Capping a three-year investigation, a federal grand jury has indicted 13 apparent members of a violent prison gang for allegedly orchestrating years of murder, robbery and drug trafficking.

Santa Rosa Police Chief Michael Dunbaugh said in a news conference Monday that law enforcement agencies were "cutting off the head of a poisonous snake" that terrorized Northern California.

But he warned that Nuestra Familia, which operated from deep inside Pelican Bay State Prison's secure unit, is a scourge that "is already growing another head."

In a 25-count indictment unsealed Friday, a federal grand jury in San Francisco charged 12 men and one woman with racketeering, murder, conspiracy to commit murder, witness tampering and using firearms in commission of a crime.

The indictment concluded a $5-million, multi-agency investigation into the prison gang's drug operations and clashes with competing members of the Mexican Mafia. It began with a single informant questioned by police from this wine country city 46 miles north of San Francisco and spread throughout Northern California, officials said.

The U.S. attorney's office described six of the men indicted as Pelican Bay inmates and high ranking members of Nuestra Familia. The Santa Rosa Police Department said the indictments were "intended to strike at the heart" of the gang by removing its leadership.

But Santa Rosa Mayor Michael F. Martini warned Monday that this investigation, although crucial and a success, would not end his city's--and the region's--gang problems.

"That great sucking sound you hear is the movement of a whole lot of others rushing forward to fill that void" caused by the indictment of alleged top Nuestra Familia gang members, Martini said.

The Pelican Bay inmates charged in the indictments were able to direct their foot soldiers outside of prison walls by sending notes through spouses and family members either during prison visits or through the mail, said Brian Parry, assistant director of the California Department of Corrections' special service unit.

"They have their rights, and we can't completely stop their communications," Parry said of the incarcerated men involved in the investigation. "We don't have the staff to read every letter coming and going."

Parry said that the Department of Corrections would be making changes in its policies to help combat actions such as those alleged against Nuestra Familia members, but he would not elaborate.

If some of the gang's leaders end up in federal prison and out of the California system, "we can dissipate some of their power," Parry said. "But these folks have 24 hours a day to figure out how to beat the system."

Ceasar Ramirez, 40, and Rico Garcia, 34, were indicted on charges of murder and conspiracy to commit murder in connection with the 1998 gang assassination of Michael Castillo in Salinas, the U.S. attorney's office said.

"Mr. Castillo was contacted by Santa Rosa investigators when his name was found on a hit list in Pelican Bay," Dunbaugh said. "He was warned. At the time he was contacted he was in Monterey County Jail on unrelated charges. He told the investigators that he didn't believe them. He was released from custody and five or six days later, he was basically assassinated."

Garcia is also charged with two additional murders, along with conspiracy to murder three others, one charge of solicitation to murder, a charge of attempted murder and witness tampering. Ramirez is charged with one other murder, an attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder, along with distributing methamphetamine.

All told, the indictment charged the 13 suspects with five murders and 10 attempts, conspiracies or solicitations to commit murder, among other crimes.

"There is a war occurring in our communities in California," Dunbaugh said, describing the clash between the two Latino prison gangs and its effect on the state. "This war is about power and control and money. It is about drugs, crime and victimization."

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