On Avalon Street in Echo Park, Victoria Villicano is known as a devoted mother who is often seen behind the wheel of her SUV, driving her two teenage sons to stores and sporting events.
But Los Angeles Police Department detectives say the 42-year-old woman also drove a five-member tagging crew, including her two children, around Silver Lake and Echo Park, stopping long enough for the group to jump out and vandalize.
Authorities believe the crew is responsible for spray-painting about 100 sites along Sunset Boulevard, causing tens of thousands of dollars in damage. Their alleged reign came to an end last week when police received a call about some teens tagging a 7-Eleven store in Silver Lake.
Undercover vandalism detectives said they found one of Villicano's sons -- with fresh paint on his hands -- near a wall, dumping clothing and paint cans into a trashcan. Police found the other alleged taggers waiting with Villicano in her SUV.
"This had to be a first," said one of the detectives, who asked that his name not be used because of the nature of his work.
But a relative said the allegations do not square with the woman he knows.
Ray Bermudez, Villicano's stepfather, said she would often leave the house with her sons, but it was to go shopping or play sports.
"She goes shopping, she comes back and it's normal," said Bermudez, 60, who shares a small ramshackle house with Villicano and her two sons, ages 15 and 19. "She's a good mom. She's old enough to know better."
Villicano and her 19-year-old son, David Ramirez, were scheduled to be appear today in Los Angeles County Superior Court on five counts of felony vandalism of more than $400. Four juveniles ranging in age from 14 to 16, including Villicano's 15-year-old son, are also being held.
This was not Villicano's first arrest. She pleaded no contest in 2002 to felony possession of a controlled substance and a misdemeanor charge of carrying a concealed weapon. She was sentenced to 90 days in jail and three years' probation. In January, she was charged with one felony count of possession or purchase of a cocaine base for sale. She pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a year in jail with credit for nearly three months behind bars. She was again placed on probation.
Because of the prior arrests, she is being held without bail. Ramirez is being held in lieu of $100,000 bail.
In Echo Park -- where graffiti has been a major problem --some residents said they were disturbed by the arrest.
"I can't understand what kind of mother would do that," said Evie Seifu, who runs a business near Villicano's home. "It's telling her children that it's OK to do this kind of thing."
Seifu said she and her husband have had to paint over graffiti on the wall of their Echo Park studio at least 10 times in the last year.
"Seeing graffiti still makes you feel unsettled, no matter where you're at," said Seifu, who lives in Silver Lake. "It's not about the property, it's about something being violated."
The arrests were made by the Northeast Area station's criminal apprehension team, the enforcement arm of the station's detectives. Team members work plainclothes and target specific crime problems or trends in the area.
Witnesses spotted a crew tagging at Micheltorena Street School in Silver Lake on Aug. 22 and followed them to the 7-Eleven at Sunset Boulevard and Rosemont Avenue, where undercover detectives caught up with them.
Detectives said they found the letters "HIV" or "HIVC" spray-painted at both sites, as well as at about 100 other locations within a two-mile area along Sunset Boulevard between Virgil Avenue and Lemoyne Street. Law enforcement sources said the moniker stood for either "High in Violence" or "High in Vandalism." Detectives are investigating whether the rash of graffiti was part of some rivalry with another tagging crew.
LAPD Assistant Chief Earl Paysinger said he was taken aback when he first heard about the arrest and said it underscores the need for parents to be responsible.
"Sometimes we search for answers as to why young people become engaged in irresponsible acts," he said. "We look to social and economic conditions as causal factors. But often it's parents abdicating their responsibility to be parents."
Bermudez said he once confronted a tagger who was spray-painting near the coffee shop he frequents in Echo Park
"I told one of them to put some on his rear end, that's where it belongs," Bermudez said.