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Gang leaders' assets sought in civil suit

Cash damages would go to Westlake and Pico-Union residents.

December 09, 2008|Richard Winton | Winton is a Times staff writer.

A first-of-a-kind lawsuit filed Monday by the Los Angeles city attorney seeks cash damages against leaders of a notorious gang and proposes to distribute their criminal assets among residents of crime-plagued neighborhoods.

The lawsuit targets nine imprisoned leaders of the 18th Street gang, including two leaders of the Mexican Mafia, and demands civil damages on behalf of residents of two city neighborhoods. If successful, the suit would distribute proceeds from seized homes, businesses and other assets to neighborhood residents who cannot file suit themselves because they fear retaliation, prosecutors say.

"Today, we're sending a message to gang leaders across this city: If you break the law, we will not only find you, arrest you and put you behind bars, we will also take away your money, your property, your homes and your cars," City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo said. "Every penny we strip away will be returned to the neighborhoods."

Delgadillo said the action is necessary because the gang leaders, even though they are in prison, collect profits from illegal "street taxes" imposed on residents of the Pico-Union and Westlake areas, where drug dealers, store owners and even ice cream vendors must pay protection.

The suit seeks compensation for all property damage, property devaluation, emotional distress, personal injury, medical expenses and time in which residents could not use public parks because of gang activity.

The nine leaders of the 18th Street gang named in the suit are: Sergio "Tricky" Pantoja, Frank "Puppet" Martinez, Araceli "Traviesa" Bravo, Michael "Mousie" Pineda, Jose Juan "Wicked" Alvarez, Noe "Lil Duster" Chavez, Efrain "Dandy Boy" Ruiz Torres, Jose "Toro" Morales Perez and Ruben "Nite Owl" Castro.

Castro, 46, is a leader, or carnal, of the Mexican Mafia, also known as the "La Eme" prison gang. Authorities say Castro controls two cliques of the 18th Street gang -- the Shatto Park Locos and the Hoover Locos.

Castro is alleged to have run those gang cliques from a federal maximum-security prison in Colorado, where he is serving multiple life terms and was recently sentenced to an additional 27 years and three months for racketeering. Prosecutors say that from behind bars, Martinez, another La Eme carnal, allegedly made as much as $40,000 a month from criminal activity. Delgadillo said that if a judgment is won against the gang leaders in civil court, legitimately acquired assets can also be garnered. He said many of the assets are concealed by relatives and will be aggressively pursued.

At the home of one Martinez relative, investigators found $444,605 stashed in storage boxes and in a vacuum cleaner bag, according to Bruce Riordan, the city attorney's gang prosecutor and a former federal prosecutor of the 18th Street gang and Mexican Mafia.

"Included on the bank notes were 18th Street marks with streets and collectors' names," he said.

"We have come across investment in juice bars, even," Riordan said.

Another of the nine, Pantoja, owned a local tattoo parlor, Unico's, which was shut down by prosecutors because, authorities said, it was the center of a cocaine sales operation.

State officials have frozen prison accounts of some Pelican Bay State Prison inmates with large sums on the books.

The gang extorts as much as 30% of the take from some businesses in and around MacArthur Park, Riordan said. A baby was killed last year in that area when, prosecutors said, gang members were threatening a business owner.

City prosecutors can bring the suit thanks to a newly enacted state law, which allows them to act on behalf of members of the neighborhoods affected by gang activity and collect monetary damages awarded in specific civil actions. The law allows such actions in areas with gang injunctions. The 18th Street gang is already the subject of five gang injunctions by city prosecutors.

The lawsuit involves neighborhoods covered by two of the five injunctions against the 18th Street gang. The Pico-Union neighborhood is bounded by James M. Wood Boulevard to the north, the 110 Freeway to the east, the 10 Freeway to the south and Hoover Street to the west. The Westlake neighborhood is bounded by Beverly Boulevard to the north, the 110 Freeway to the east, James M. Wood Boulevard to the south and Normandie Avenue to the west.

"This prosecution will make this community whole again," LAPD Deputy Chief Charlie Beck said.

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richard.winton@latimes.com

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