When her father was convicted of the murder of a rival gang member and sentenced to life in prison without parole almost three decades ago, Vianna Roman was a 9-year-old girl.
In the years since, Danny Roman, federal authorities say, has become a feared member of the Mexican Mafia prison gang. He allegedly controlled a 30-square-mile expanse of gang territory in South L.A. from behind bars in Pelican Bay State Prison. Doing his bidding from 700 miles away — passing down his orders of violence, collecting "taxes" from businesses and other gang members at his behest — was his daughter, federal prosecutors alleged Thursday.
Vianna, now 37, a mother and operator of a meat market and water store, was among 18 arrested as part of a sweeping federal take-down of members of the Harpys gang, which authorities said controlled an area just north of USC, engaging in drug and gun sales, extortion, robberies and at least one murder. Vianna and her husband, Aaron Soto, 40, were accused of being among leaders of the gang in a federal racketeering indictment, along with the alleged "shot-caller," 36-year-old Manuel Valencia of Walnut.
The indictment was a result of a 2 1/2-year investigation dubbed Operation Roman Empire by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Los Angeles Police Department. It named 29 defendants, some of whom were already in state custody. Still others are fugitives, according to a news release from the U.S. attorney's office.
"This is uprooting the leadership of the Harpys gang," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Benjamin Barron. "The Harpys controlled the activities of Danny Roman's gangs on his behalf — extortion of businesses and gangs, drug trafficking, gun trafficking, enforcement of their orders through violence including murder."
Among the crimes allegedly committed by the gang were a May 2012 murder of a man who owed a $230 drug debt; an August 2011 plot to murder a witness who had testified against a gang member; and a December 2011 armed robbery of three USC students. Prosecutors wrote in court papers that through its activities, the gang maintained a "climate of fear" in the neighborhood.
All of the newly arrested defendants made their initial court appearances Thursday except Vianna Roman, who was taken to the hospital complaining of chest pains, prosecutors said.
The 110-page indictment described Vianna traveling to and from Pelican Bay to pass messages about the gang's business to and from her father. In January, prison officials banned her and her husband from visits for one year because of suspected gang activity, according to the filing.
Vianna allegedly took part in collecting taxes from other South L.A. gangs controlled by her father, complaining at one point that the gangs weren't coughing up enough money in relation to the quantity of drugs they were selling. Roman had under his power at least 12 other criminal gangs in an expansive territory that stretched as far south as Imperial Highway, according to prosecutors.
Vianna, prosecutors alleged in the indictment, also oversaw extortion of vendors at the Alameda Swap Meet and ordered a gang member beaten for failing to deliver "taxes" collected there. She is also accused of being involved in drug sales, and at one point arbitrating a dispute by ordering an 18th Street gang member to turn over two cars in lieu of an unpaid drug debt.
She could not be reached for comment and has not entered a plea in court. Attorneys representing her husband and Valencia, the alleged shot-caller, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Harpys gang has previously been targeted by the Los Angeles city attorney's office in injunctions alleging that members were engaged in shakedowns, robberies, vandalism and murder. A judge issued a court order in 1998 that barred 30 of the gang's members from associating with one another in the area, which is still in force.
At the time, one business owner said the Harpys asked for $150 to $180 a month for protection from the gang.
The gang controlled an area southwest of downtown bounded by Normandie Avenue, Figueroa Street, Washington Boulevard and Jefferson Boulevard, prosecutors said. Over the course of the operation, authorities seized 8 1/2 pounds of methamphetamine, about half a pound of heroin, approximately one pound of cocaine, 23 pounds of marijuana and 22 guns, according to a news release from the U.S. attorney's office.
If convicted of the racketeering charges, all but one of the defendants face a maximum sentence of life in prison, prosecutors said.
Also on Thursday, the Los Angeles city attorney's office filed two nuisance abatement actions against properties in the area where known activity by the Harpys gang occurred.