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Nine in street gang guilty

October 27, 2006|Joe Mozingo | Times Staff Writer

Nine members of the Vineland Boyz street gang in the San Fernando Valley were convicted Thursday in a federal racketeering and drug trial, part of a sweeping campaign by law enforcement to rout the gang after the shooting death of a rookie police officer.

A jury found one of the defendants -- Gilberto Carrasco, 27 -- guilty as an accessory after the fact to the killing of Burbank Officer Matthew Pavelka during a traffic stop in November 2003. Carrasco helped the alleged shooter escape to Tijuana.

Another defendant, Francisco Zambrano, 27, was found guilty of attempting to murder four people, including three Marines, when he opened fire on their car in Sun Valley last year.

Two of the defendants -- Rafael Yepiz, 35, and Sergio Mejia, 39 -- face mandatory life sentences. Zambrano faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in prison. Each remaining defendant faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison.

Jurors took a week to decide which of the nine men were guilty of 40 separate criminal counts. The reading of the verdicts Thursday took almost an hour.

Several of the defendants joked before the verdicts were read or smiled at friends in the gallery. Hearing the verdicts, they showed no reaction.

The defendants were among dozens of gang members and drug dealers arrested when a task force of more than 1,300 federal agents and local police officers swept through the East Valley in June 2005. Forty-nine people allegedly connected to the gang were indicted.

Dealing with street gangs has traditionally been the domain of local and state law enforcement. But the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles has increasingly used the heavy hand of the RICO anti-racketeering statutes -- designed to fight organized crime -- to go after them. Members of the Aryan Brotherhood, Nazi Lowriders, Mexican Mafia and 18th Street gang have been targeted by the federal government.

"I think it's important we have this tool," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Mark Young, the trial's lead prosecutor. "Drug trafficking doesn't really capture what these guys are doing.... RICO captures the full conduct that street gangs are engaged in ... the witness intimidation, the random shooting, the murder and attempted murder."

Three more alleged members of the Vineland Boyz are set to be tried early next year in the killing of a 16-year-old girl who testified in a preliminary hearing against the gang. Another member, David Garcia, is set for a state trial in December or January on charges that he shot Pavelka to death. He will then report to federal court for trial on racketeering and drug charges.

Larry Bakman, attorney for Yepiz, said he was particularly disappointed with the guilty verdicts on the two counts of racketeering.

Bakman said the Vineland Boyz didn't have the leadership structure and organization to constitute a "racketeering enterprise." Of 49 defendants in the first indictment, 27 have entered plea agreements. Seven await trial, five are fugitives and one has been deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial.


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