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Police join forces for Wilmington gang sweep

Local and U.S. officers arrest 43 as agencies file asset-forfeiture and nuisance-abatement suits in the fight against drugs and guns.

August 01, 2007|Sam Quinones | Times Staff Writer

For more than 30 years, the Blood street gang known as East Side Pain has participated in gun and drug sales in an area of Wilmington known as Ghosttown.

Nine families in the neighborhood have members in the gang and control drug sales, which bring customers from Long Beach, Harbor Gateway and San Pedro, authorities said.

On Tuesday, dozens of local and federal officers, as part of a larger and ongoing crackdown on gangs, fanned out across the neighborhood, serving search warrants and arresting 43 gang members and their associates on narcotics and weapons charges. Twelve fugitives were also charged.

The sweep, which began about 4 a.m., caught residents by surprise.

"I heard the buzz of the helicopters above," said Palmira Marquez, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1972.

Neighbors said that within minutes, the streets were full of police cars.

In addition to the arrests, Los Angeles police and agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives seized guns, marijuana, crack cocaine and cash.

As part of the five-month undercover investigation, local and federal prosecutors also filed five asset-forfeiture lawsuits and five nuisance-abatement lawsuits against the owners of properties in the area where criminal activity was allegedly taking place, City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo said at a noon news conference.

Some of the lawsuits seek to force owners to clean up and improve control of their properties. But others seek to seize properties, such as the suit involving the Catalina Motel in the 1400 block of Pacific Coast Highway, which authorities said has long been a place where drugs were sold.

Officials called Tuesday's sweep an unprecedented example of financially strapped local and federal agencies working together, sharing intelligence and pooling their resources to combat the region's vast gang problem. They acknowledge that has not always been the case.

"But change is here.... Not only do we work together, we happen to like each other," Los Angeles Deputy Police Chief Earl Paysinger said.

The investigation involved the LAPD, the Los Angeles city attorney, Los Angeles County district attorney, the U.S. attorney general and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Paysinger said the investigation differed from others because agents worked side by side instead of communicating via telephone or e-mail. Agency heads also made sharing information and personnel a top priority, something that hadn't occurred in the past, he said.

Initially, the LAPD and federal bureau had separate investigations.

"We found out about theirs. They found out about ours," said John Torres, the ATF's agent in charge in Los Angeles. "We brought our two investigations together."

The bureau, for example, provided more than a dozen agents performing surveillance and making undercover weapons purchases in Ghosttown, he said. Their information was shared with police and city attorneys, who used it in their narcotics investigations and as evidence in the nuisance lawsuits.

"It's kind of a new era in the way policing is done," Torres said. "I think it could set the tone of policing relations nationwide, once they see the L.A. model work."

Bureau Agent John D'Angelo said his undercover officers spread the word that they were looking for weapons to buy. In the end, they bought 15 weapons from gang dealers.

"People were jumping to supply them," many of which bureau agents believe are stolen from other states, D'Angelo said.

The alleged gang drug houses staggered their hours of operation so that when one was open, another was closed, Delgadillo said.

But some property owners targeted by Delgadillo's office complained that they were unfairly singled out. One house in the 1500 block of Cruces Street belongs to Gary Sprewell, 53, whose family has owned the house since 1959.

The city's lawsuit alleges that the Sprewells allowed the house to be used for narcotics sales.

Sprewell, a professional musician, said youths sell drugs on the corner outside his house, which he can't control. But "I've never messed with anything. Clean as a whistle," he said. "What they're doing is wrong. It's underhanded."

Neighbors said the working-class neighborhood, bounded on two sides by trucking firms and junkyards, has been besieged by gang and drug crime for years.

Recently, though, the heated real estate market has brought changes to Ghosttown. Several houses were sold after being vacant for years. Owners have remodeled.

Meanwhile, more Latinos have bought houses, creating a mixed-race neighborhood that once was mostly black.

Jesus Silva, who was washing his car Tuesday near one of the houses targeted by a federal nuisance lawsuit, said drug sales at the house have "been happening since I got here" 15 years ago.

"It's not so much that they sell drugs," he said as his children and nephews played in the yard. "It's that the kids see it and grow up in it."

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