Touting their effort to crack down on a violent San Fernando Valley street gang linked to the slaying of a Burbank police officer, authorities announced Tuesday the arrests of nearly two dozen people whom they said were "associates" of the Vineland Boyz gang.
But after the press conference at which the arrests were announced, several law enforcement officials close to the case said the success of the operation had been overstated and disputed the number of suspects who actually had ties to the street gang.
Briane Grey, a spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said only one of the 22 people arrested in the predawn raid has any known connection to the gang.
Linking the others to the Vineland Boyz "would be a stretch," Grey said. He characterized the suspects as "a cell of mid-level drug dealers."
"These were not Vineland Boyz," said another federal law enforcement source, speaking on condition of anonymity. "They're just drug dealers."
A third federal official, who also asked not to be named because he is involved in a continuing criminal investigation of the gang, said up to four suspects had some ties to the Vineland Boyz because they either communicated with known members or supplied them drugs.
A press release by the multi-agency task force investigating the gang had described the case in far more sweeping terms:
"21 Members of San Fernando Valley Street Gang Named in Second Federal Indictment," the release stated. "Vineland Boyz Street Gang Dismantling Continues in Massive Police Action."
Authorities have been arresting and pursuing members of the Vineland Boyz for more than a year and a half, since the killing of rookie Burbank Police Officer Matthew Pavelka in November 2003. David Garcia, whom police have described as a member of the gang, was arrested a few days after the killing and has been charged with murder.
Authorities say the Vineland Boyz evolved from a tight-knit group of friends on a football team in the late 1980s to one of the San Fernando Valley's most violent and highly organized gangs. Unlike many street gangs, Vineland Boyz operates like a business, trafficking in narcotics and high-end illegal weapons, according to a federal indictment made public last month after raids that netted 36 reputed gang members. Members of the gang are also known for dressing sharply, shunning the long white shirts and baggy pants often worn by gang members throughout Los Angeles.
The gang absorbed several other street gangs, forged an alliance with the Mexican Mafia to boost its narcotics trade, and controlled drug trafficking in large areas of the San Fernando Valley and Burbank, authorities said.
The press release issued by law enforcement agencies Tuesday described the early-morning raid as part of the effort to dismantle the gang. According to the release, 600 police officers and federal agents fanned out across the San Fernando Valley, executing search warrants at 17 locations and visiting four others.
Los Angeles Police Lt. Paul Vernon, who wrote the press release for the task force, said he was told that those arrested in the sweep Tuesday were "affiliates" of the Vineland Boyz. He said he was unaware there was little evidence linking most of the suspects to the gang.
"If they are not directly involved, I'll accept that," Vernon said.
He said all the agencies involved in the operation read the press release and signed off on it.
Dubbed "Operation Swift Intruder," Tuesday's raid was a follow-up to last month's "Operation Silent Night," which targeted reputed Vineland Boyz members who had been indicted on federal racketeering charges.
Both raids, law enforcement officials said, dealt serious blows to the gang.
"The arrests today are a continuation of our pledge to put a violent street gang out of business," LAPD Chief William J. Bratton said in a statement. "Yes, this is a labor-intensive, expensive endeavor, but consider the cost of gang crime in loss of lives, property, and the added cost for the taxpayers in public safety."
At a meeting of the Burbank City Council on Tuesday night, that city's police chief, Thomas Hoefel, said the raid targeted the narcotics wing of the gang's organization. "Clearly, we sent the message: If you know or are associated with the Vineland Boyz, you can't hide," Hoefel said.
The 45-page indictment made public Tuesday regarding the people arrested earlier in the day does not mention the Vineland Boyz gang. It details a seven-month period from April to October 2004, during which suspects negotiated the sales of cocaine and methamphetamine.
Police eavesdropped on the suspects' phone conversations as they used coded language to arrange drug deals as small as half an ounce of cocaine to as large as 50 pounds of methamphetamine, the indictment said.