Nineteen people, including five former police officers, have been criminally charged in connection with a string of daring and sometimes violent robberies in Southern California, which were staged to look like law enforcement raids as the suspects used police badges and equipment to fool victims, federal authorities said Thursday.
Though the scope of the nearly five-year investigation was first made public in 2004, new details emerged with the arrests this week of a California prison guard -- taken into custody Thursday -- and of former Los Angeles and Long Beach police officers. Three other suspects remain at large, authorities said.
The group committed more than 20 robberies and burglaries in Los Angeles and neighboring communities over a span of 2 1/2 years until its ringleader, a Los Angeles police officer, was arrested in 2001 on drug charges.
"What makes this case so disturbing is that the defendants include five sworn law enforcement officers who abused their badges, their uniforms and their oaths of office to engage in criminal conduct under the pretense of conducting real police operations," said Thomas O'Brien, head of the criminal division for the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles. "While this story sounds like a script from 'The Shield' or 'Training Day,' it actually happened."
Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton focused his comments on the three former LAPD officers who allegedly were part of the crew. The officers, he said, "are traitors to the badge that the men and women of this department so proudly wear, traitors to their fellow officers and, most importantly, traitors to the public."
Most of the participants secretly pleaded guilty to their roles in the crime spree, which lasted from January 1999 to June 2001. Their pleas, in which they agreed to cooperate with authorities, had been kept confidential to protect the ongoing investigation.
The mastermind of the criminal enterprise, officials said, was former LAPD Officer Ruben Palomares, 36, a former Golden Gloves boxer who sparred with top-notch fighters such as Oscar De La Hoya and Shane Mosley. His cohorts were friends, co-workers and relatives, authorities said.
One member was a former female boxer who trained with Palomares, they said.
In addition to the five sworn police officers implicated in the ring, at least four other crew members had ties to law enforcement. Two were graduates of a police officer training program at Rio Hondo Community College.
Another worked as a civilian custodial officer at the Garden Grove Police Department and yet another was an LAPD Explorer Scout who sought a job with the department but was turned down.
Authorities said Palomares' crew was highly sophisticated and organized. They wore police uniforms and badges during many of the robberies. They used LAPD squad cars and unmarked police vehicles during some of the heists, court records show.
During the crime spree, they stole more than 700 pounds of marijuana and 50 kilos of cocaine from drug dealers, which they then sold, court papers state. In addition, they stole cars, money, firearms and jewelry. In one particularly bold robbery, crew members identified themselves as police officers as they commandeered television sets from the back of a truck on a street in Montebello, the documents show.
Some incidents turned violent, with victims being kicked and beaten. At least one victim was shot with a stun gun.
According to court papers, the thieves used law enforcement tactics during the robberies. Some crew members were assigned surveillance duties, watching for police and potential witnesses. Other members -- dubbed the "entry team" -- would burst into locations. Victims often were handcuffed.
"Once inside the target locations, various co-conspirators would assault and beat the occupants to obtain information, search for narcotics, money and other valuable property," the 54-count indictment unsealed Thursday stated.
Authorities arrested three of the remaining suspects this week: Ex-LAPD Officer William Ferguson, 33, and his brother, ex-Long Beach Police Officer Joseph Ferguson, 31, who were both arrested Wednesday, and Rodrigo Duran, 35, a former Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy and now a state prison guard.
The federal investigation of the criminal enterprise began on June 8, 2001, when Palomares and four other men were arrested in San Diego after having paid $130,000 to undercover DEA agents for 10 kilos of cocaine.
At the time, authorities searched Palomares' Diamond Bar home and seized 13 firearms -- including six unregistered semiautomatic assault rifles, 150 boxes of ammunition and a money-counting machine.
One of the men arrested that day, Alvin Moon, immediately began cooperating with authorities. In addition to the robberies, Moon told authorities that he had witnessed Palomares and another crew member assault a young man after an argument at a restaurant.