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Sweeps week

Come along for a ride with the Sheriff's Department during a multi-agency operation to deal a blow to a gang-related North County narcotics ring

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It’s about 4:30 on a cold and misty Wednesday morning. We’re shivering outside the Paso Robles Police Department headquarters, awaiting the arrival of San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department Cmdr. Aaron Nix, our ride and chaperone for the day.

BUSTED :  The SLO County Sheriff’s Department played host to a slew of law enforcement agencies from out of the area—including the FBI, who was running the show—in a massive effort to round up a gang-operated narcotics ring. New Times had an exclusive front-row seat. - PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • BUSTED : The SLO County Sheriff’s Department played host to a slew of law enforcement agencies from out of the area—including the FBI, who was running the show—in a massive effort to round up a gang-operated narcotics ring. New Times had an exclusive front-row seat.

I’m standing here with a very sleepy Staff Photographer Steve E. Miller, the sour taste of cheap Seven-Eleven coffee doused with too much sugar clinging to my tongue. It was the only place open at this hour.

The forecast calls for heavy rain, but for now it’s holding up. Little did some 20 suspected North County gang members and serious drug dealers know that about 200 officers from numerous local and federal agencies were preparing to rain down upon them.

The New Times editorial department had been pestering Sheriff Ian Parkinson for months to allow us on a ride-along during a heavy drug bust. For a couple of weeks, we were told something big was about to go down. Parkinson and his department’s spokesman, Tony Cipolla, couldn’t dish the details beforehand, of course, but we were told the call would be coming—and it might be at 2 in the morning, so we had to be ready.

About 24 hours before it was to go down, we got the call. With very few facts, two cameras, and a half-used notepad in hand, we trudged out into the cold, misty morning—sans flak jackets.

Nix informed us that while the Sheriff’s Department was “hosting” this particular operation, the FBI was running the show as the lead agency. And he warned us there might be a few agents who weren’t too pleased that the press would be there.

He drove us in his unmarked coupe to Templeton High School, where the task force was gathering to brief in the auditorium. Why the high school?

“It’s the only place big enough to fit us all in,” Nix said.

And he was right. The parking lot was filled to capacity with some 100 vehicles, some marked, some not; all sporting state-exempt license plates. We were lucky to find a spot off the street.

Nix led us into the auditorium, which was bustling with agents in flak vests and windbreakers, some sporting “Sheriff” on their backs, some “FBI.” There was a table full of ready-made brown paper bag lunches, and coffee.

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From the moment we arrived, Miller and I realized Nix was right; there were definitely some people in attendance who didn’t appreciate the press’s involvement in the operation. We were told—politely—to wait outside during the briefing. Later we were told that there were undercover narcotics officers present for which a simple photograph could mean the end of a career—or worse.

And let me tell you, when a slick FBI agent tells you to wait outside, you wait outside.

After about 30 minutes, the group—which consisted of some 200 law enforcement officials—reconvened to the parking lot to suit up, load their guns, and coordinate with their respective 10- to 20-person teams.

As Nix put it, the whole operation was going to go down “like a carefully organized dance.” And he was right. Even pulling out of the parking lot required a high degree of coordination. As our team—which included nine cars of about 15 officers—finally made it out and onto the freeway, we learned that our destination was a Paso Robles motel, where officers were hoping to find their targets asleep.

Armed with a warrant signed by a federal judge, the task force had strategically arrested three primary targets related to the alleged ring in September, Nix told us. The investigation was more than a year in the making, he said, and the suspects they were aiming to round up this morning wouldn’t know the extent of the charges against them until they ended up in the same paddy wagon together.

“They’ll probably put the pieces together then,” Nix said.

Their intended targets had been named in a federal indictment handed down just days earlier. They were allegedly part of a sophisticated narcotics ring run by North County gang members, namely members of Paso 13, Underground Pride, and the youth-oriented Wicked Minded Sureños. Nix said the different agencies had been preparing for this bust for quite some time, and could be considered a follow-up to last year’s “Safe Streets” operation, which focused on specific gang-heavy neighborhoods following a number of violent incidents.

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Aside from the Sheriff’s Department and the FBI, there were many other agencies involved. The sheriff’s gang and drug task force—which is comprised of officers from the county’s seven municipal police departments—took part, as did investigators from the district attorney’s office, SLO County Probation, Social Services, the California Highway Patrol, the U.S. Marshall’s Office, the Santa Maria Police Department, and the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department. In an example of inter-agency collaboration, these guys had been coordinating the effort for months.

“Practice is so important, because you have people who don’t normally work together,” Nix said.

We merged onto Highway 1, the nine cars in our group driving in a single-file formation in the slow lane. With only one black-and-white among us, we likely looked like some strange procession for the common passerby. One car sped past us and quickly slammed the brakes upon seeing the marked car and realizing he was blasting past a pack of cops. We had a laugh.

Coming upon our destination, we stopped and did one last check before everyone took their places surrounding the motel. Cars and officers essentially cordoned off every road leading in and out of the entire block.

It was a surreal moment as officers exited their vehicles with their assault rifles, and three women, seemingly out for their morning jog, trudged past us without giving us a second look. Just another morning.

We walked into the motel’s parking lot, Miller and I keeping a safe distance, and watched as agents knocked on the doors of two rooms, declaring, “Sheriff’s department!”

Though we couldn’t see, we heard vague obscenities being flung around before a young African-American man was taken in cuffs to a squad car. Though the meeting didn’t start calmly, the young man was apparently coming around and was now cooperating with officers.

“I know you guys are just doing your jobs,” the unidentified man said. “I just really don’t like this shit.”

We later learned the man wasn’t actually one of the morning’s targets, but he wasn’t cooperating with officers and was suspected of attempting to hide narcotics in his room. Whether he was ever charged is unknown.

Despite the fracas below, we saw a man through a window above getting ready for the workday, seemingly unconcerned with what was transpiring around him. Another couple emerged from their room to smoke a cigarette, and seeing what was going down, quickly jumped back inside.

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The officers immediately found one of two individuals they were looking for at the motel, and had him sitting on a curb in cuffs as the K-9 unit searched the room.

“He’s running a mental inventory right now, trying to figure out what we’re doing here,” an officer commented to us. “He knows he’s in trouble—he just doesn’t know how bad it is yet.”

Officers found their first target, but were having trouble locating the second. According to Nix, they had information that both should be at the motel—they just couldn’t be sure which room. So they had to check every one.

The routine went something like this: Two officers would knock on a door, say who they were and what they were doing, and ask if anyone in the room was on probation. The occupants would say no, and provide identification. The officers would ask if they could bring the K-9 in to have a sniff. The occupants would hesitantly agree, the dog would do its thing, and the officers would thank them and be on their way.

It was striking how agreeable people are to being searched at 5:30 in the morning when they’re faced with a parking lot full of law enforcement agents.

The operation in Paso Robles went pretty smoothly. Truth be told, the most exciting part occurred when a woman approached the scene asking if anyone had seen her dog. Of course, we hadn’t, but sure enough, it later came running up to one of the sheriff’s department’s German shepherds.

“You’re barking up the wrong tree, little man,” one deputy chuckled, as the shepherd’s handler tried to split the two up. The dog’s owner finally picked it up, took it inside, and order was restored to the scene.

By the end of the operation that morning, 16 people had been taken into custody in a number of locations around Paso Robles, making a total of 22 overall. One suspect was still unaccounted for, and is now considered a fugitive.

The FBI has a pretty strict policy when it comes to dealing with the media. In short, they do it on their terms. But breaking from protocol as a favor to the local guys, Spec. Agent Brian Sullivan, the senior supervisor resident agent from the FBI’s Santa Maria office, and Sheriff Parkinson met Miller and me outside the command center at the Paso Robles PD to give us a little post-operation debriefing, as they knew our weekly deadline was just a few hours before the official press release would go out.

The gist: The operation was a success. Each target was taken into custody without incident. According to the FBI, arrested Dec. 12 were Daniel Montes, 37; Delores Prieto, 54; Edward Merino, 50; Leanne Ferravanti, 52; Anna Aldaco, 34; Amelia Rosales, 34; Miguel Hernandez, 32; Emiterio Guerrero, 28; Gabriel Rendon, 38; Gary Davis, 45; Leobardo Aburto, 34; Brandon Fletcher, 28; Angelica Aguilar, 36; and Juan Becerra, 37—all of Paso Robles. Additionally, a San Diego man, Edwin Rodriguez, 29, was arrested.

One person—Melanie Wilson, 39, of Paso Robles—wasn’t found during the operation and is considered a fugitive. The remaining suspects are now facing federal charges in Los Angeles, some looking at a possible sentence of up to 40 years in prison.

And just as the rain began to fall, and the early morning commuters were beginning to fill the streets, completely oblivious to what had just gone down, we packed it up and shipped off, back to the office—the safe, warm office—to write the story.

So … gang problem solved, right?

Boom! Sixteen in one day, just like that. Two hundred lawmen with flashlights and arrest warrants knocking on doors, seizing meth, and busting gang bangers, because that’s how the FBI rolls, son! There’s no way some small-town gang can come back from a bust like that. They’re kaput. They’re vamoosed, skedaddled, sayonara.

Just ask Paso Robles’ interim Police Chief Robert Burton about last week’s devastating blow to the drug trade:

“It’s all about supply and demand,” he said. “There is a demand, and someone will try to come in and fill the void.”

Wait—what?

Burton predicted that the high-profile sting would result in a sudden decrease of drug-related offences and property crimes in the North County, a lull he expects to last for a few months—but not forever.

Word spreads quickly among criminals, he explained. They know there’s money to be made selling drugs in Paso Robles, and sooner or later someone will try to establish a new narcotics network. Though Burton couldn’t estimate how much of the region’s drug supply was allegedly handled by the suspects now in custody, the traffickers operated in at least three counties and had a connection in San Diego, near the Mexican border. Building that kind of distribution takes time, and Burton said his department will be hyper-vigilant in the coming months, doing its best to trace any drugs they find back to their source.

Of course, it won’t be Burton’s department for much longer. Paso Robles announced recently that Capt. Manny Guaderrama of the San Diego Police Department has been chosen to take over the city’s police force, pending a background check and affirmation from the City Council. Guaderrama is expected to be sworn in on Jan. 15, and when he announced the decision, City Manager Jim App praised Guaderrama for his experience with narcotics enforcement and gang abatement.

Guaderrama continues to work in San Diego and couldn’t be reached for comment, but the recent busts will certainly make his job a helluva lot easier. Instead of taking over amid turmoil in the streets, he’ll come into a city where the remaining gang members are lying low, waiting for the heat to die down. Burton expressed hopes that Guaderrama will be able to capitalize on the down time by introducing fresh ideas aimed at squelching up-and-coming kingpins before they up and come.

Burton credited the success of the recent arrests to the fact that multiple law enforcement agencies were able to work so well together. Technically, PRPD had no member officers in the FBI’s Central Coast Safe Streets Task Force, but Paso Robles officers did assist when possible with the investigation and helped serve warrants, Burton said.

“This is a huge victory for the citizens and the community,” he said. “It illustrates how powerful and important it is to have good working relationships with other agencies.”

Marci Powers of the San Luis Obispo County Anti-Gang Coordinating Committee said that such camaraderie is necessary between social services and law enforcement as well. Combating gangs is bigger than any one bust, she said, stressing the need to expand successful programs like Youth Works, which teaches job skills to teens. It’s currently only available to Paso Robles families that live in Oak Park Public Housing, a 148-unit apartment complex set aside for low-income earners. Powers said tattoo removal and re-entry programs are key components for gang members who want to reform after jail stints, but they’re impossible to implement without the proper funding. Her commission has no money to spend. Instead, the group helps other organizations include anti-gang elements into their strategic planning.

“Any time you disrupt criminal activity, it’s a step in the right direction,” Powers said. “But we also have to help people be successful when they leave custody.”

Staff Writers Matt Fountain and Nick Powell can be reached at mfountain@newtimesslo.com and npowell@newtimesslo.com.

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