More than 400 heavily armed Los Angeles police officers and FBI agents broke down doors and rousted residents of the state's largest public housing project before dawn Wednesday, arresting 41 alleged gang members who authorities say dealt in violence and crack cocaine throughout South Los Angeles.
The raid at Nickerson Gardens targeted leaders of the Bounty Hunters, a Bloods gang, and capped a yearlong investigation by the Los Angeles Police Department and the FBI, authorities said.
"Very simply, it is about gangs. It is about guns. It is about violence. It is about drug dealing," said James M. Sheehan, acting assistant director of the FBI.
Police arrested 13 men accused in federal indictments of conspiring to sell and distribute crack cocaine after allegedly selling the drugs to a federal informant over the last six months. Two more men were being sought. If convicted of the charges, they face 10 to 30 years in prison.
An additional 26 adults and two juveniles were arrested on suspicion of state narcotics violations or outstanding warrants.
"This is one of the most violent gangs in the history of the city," Assistant Police Chief George Gascon said of the Hunters' more than 30 years of activity.
Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton said the Watts-area arrests were part of a larger strategy this year by the LAPD to target the 3% to 10% of the region's 100,000 gang members who are violent sociopaths.
"We are going after the shot callers," Bratton said, "the most violent gang members."
Bratton has sought to make gang crime a national issue since he took over the LAPD 15 months ago. Again Wednesday, he called gang violence urban terrorism and warned that local law enforcement alone cannot tackle the problem.
"This is the latest in a series of escalating activities we will be engaging in with colleagues from the federal government," Bratton said.
Anti-gang raids, however, have been a staple of the LAPD since the 1970s. The FBI, according to Sheehan, has arrested 2,250 gang members in past decades, including 30 Bounty Hunters at Nickerson Gardens three years ago.
But the scale of Wednesday's raid caught residents, including longtime gang members, by surprise.
Ronald Antwine, 44, who described himself as an original member of the Bounty Hunters, said the community was "kind of in shock" after the raid. He predicted the arrests would not have a lasting effect. "Anytime you remove one guy, another guy steps up to the plate," Antwine said.
He said he had seen several doors ripped off their hinges and scores of families huddled on their porches during the raid.
Nickerson Gardens resident David Harrell, 29, said he had seen police mistreat innocent residents.
"It was a nightmare, something that I thought I'd only see on TV," Harrell said. "I saw mothers and kids just sitting on the ground shivering.
"I feel for those guys who were arrested, but many of them put themselves in that situation," Harrell said.
Many residents said they were accustomed to the gangs and the raids.
"After being here 10 years, you're kind of used to it," said Glinda Wilson, 39.
"It happens a lot," said Monica Cardenas, referring to the shootings, raids and fights in Nickerson. "Nobody in their right mind
Sandy, a mother of five and a decade-long resident who was afraid to give her full name, said she had been leaving for work as a nurse and walked into the police sweep.
"I woke up this morning to go to work. I usually leave the house at 5:15 and an officer put a gun to me" and told her to go back into the house, she said. She said she had found out what was happening by turning on TV news.
Underscoring the threat from the gang, Bratton said, two hours before the raids, three Bounty Hunters opened fire on an LAPD patrol car after a traffic stop. Police said it was the fourth time in the last 50 days that police had been fired upon in the Nickerson Gardens area.
A subsequent search for the three suspects forced delays in the openings of two nearby elementary schools. One man was captured early Wednesday. In response, the Los Angeles City Council offered a $75,000 reward Wednesday for information leading to the arrest and conviction of anyone who shoots at a uniformed officer in the city.
Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, who helped win an injunction against the gang, said the Bounty Hunters had taken over apartments when residents moved out and excluded the newly assigned tenants. Gang members have also forced tenants out of parking lots and used them as exclusive territory for gambling and drive-through drug sales, according to Delgadillo. Officials said gang members regularly threaten residents who are seen talking to LAPD officers. In 1993, two Compton police officers were shot to death by a gang member. In 1996, an 82-year-old grandmother was fatally shot in Nickerson Gardens by a gang member. In 2000, federal prosecutors convicted 30 gang members of drug crimes.