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Charles Schulz
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Police & Public

Operation Black Widow | Crime Ring Cracked

Federal indictments crack vast prison crime ring

13 named, death penalty sought against two

April 21, 2001


A federal grand jury has issued sweeping indictments that accuse the "Nuestra Familia" prison gang of orchestrating killings and street crime across Northern California from behind bars at Pelican Bay State Prison.

Authorities say Nuestra Familia killed Michael Castillo, Sonoma County's drug leader.
  • Indictment: Federal, state and local authorities will hold a news conference Monday.

  • Capital punishment: The Nuestra Familia case would be the first federal death penalty trial in Northern California since 1948.

  • Rising tensions: The increase in gang violence stems from a long-running feud between the northern-based Nuestra Familia and the southern-based Mexican Mafia. The recent influx of Mexican Mafia members into areas controlled by Nuestra Familia has added to the conflict.
  • MORE:

  • Pelican Bay connection: Indictments against 13 Latino gang members
  • Wide Investigation: 30 agencies participated in Operation Black Widow
  • Web of gang terror: How convicted gangsters wield power from behind bars

  • The indictments cap a three-year, $5 million undercover investigation code-named "Operation Black Widow," which unfolded from information uncovered by Santa Rosa police gang investigators.

    Five of the highest-ranking gang leaders jailed at Pelican Bay, California's highest-security prison, and eight other lieutenants and followers face charges that include murder, conspiracy, racketeering and drug dealing.

    Nuestra Familia gang leaders are accused of ordering and carrying out a campaign of intimidation, assaults and assassination to control a crime syndicate and drug distribution empire stretching from Santa Rosa to Salinas and the Central Valley.

    Federal prosecutors will seek the death penalty against two of those indicted, a gang "captain" from Sonoma County involved in drug running and his alleged accomplice in a 1998 prison-ordered "hit" against a Salinas rival.

    "There's a war going on, and it threatens to engulf every community in the state," said Brian Parry, the state Department of Correction's chief deputy for law enforcement.

    After hearing testimony for the past year, a federal grand jury in San Francisco returned sealed indictments Thursday. The indictments became public Friday when four of those accused were arrested and taken before federal magistrates in Sacramento and San Jose.

    Local and federal authorities have scheduled a news conference Monday in Santa Rosa to lay out details of the case.

    The investigation began with two Santa Rosa police detectives who drew key information in 1997 from a Pelican Bay parolee that helped explain several gang-related slayings in Sonoma County.

    It expanded into a special crime task force, set up in a secret Santa Rosa basement headquarters and overseen by FBI agents and federal prosecutors in San Francisco and Washington. Informants helped the task force penetrate the upper echelons of the Nuestra Familia leadership at Pelican Bay, situated near Crescent City in Del Norte County.

    Thousands of pages of intercepted communications and transcripts of taped conversations among gang leaders document a bloody battle for control of drug trafficking, money laundering and gun-running in poor Latino neighborhoods and their communities.

    The imprisoned leadership even discourages use of the word gang, and in one internal communication described itself as a "crime family" and a "mob involved in both legal and illicit business."

    Authorities said the criminal activities involved millions of dollars, but they cannot estimate the actual amount of money generated.

    The cost for the community, however, is huge. At issue is a violent power struggle between the Nuestra Familia and the Southern California-based Mexican Mafia, the state's largest prison-controlled gang.

    Federal prosecutors are invoking federal racketeering and conspiracy laws that once were used almost exclusively against organized crime figures operating on the East Coast and in Nevada.

    Those laws also were applied in a 1997 Southern California case that resulted in a dozen Mexican Mafia leaders confined at Pelican Bay being convicted by a federal jury of running a drug and crime ring from their prison cells. Racketeering laws also were used as the basis for 11 federal indictments returned last year against Nuestra Familia gang members in the Salinas area.

    Called "norteños," Nuestra Familia followers belong to the prison gang's so-called "northern structure," which is divided into street crews whose jobs are to help support members inside and out of prison through extortion, robberies and dealing of methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine and marijuana, according to prosecutors.

    The gang originated in 1968 inside the state prison as a means of protection for Latino inmates from rural Northern California communities, and its imprisoned leaders are suspected of being responsible for at least 300 killings over three decades in state prisons and on the streets.

    State prison officials say that the Nuestra Familia and Mexican Mafia have become the two most powerful prison gangs in the state prison system. Together, their combined memberships among the 300,000 inmates held in 33 state prisons surpass followers of Asian and black gangs, and the white-based Aryan Brotherhood and Nazi Low Riders.

    Nuestra Familia has an estimated 200 top-ranking members who control thousands of "street soldiers" in Santa Rosa, Salinas, San Jose, Stockton and other cities near agricultural areas.

    The federal indictments target four of the five highest-ranking leaders of the Nuestra Famila prison gang.

    Prosecutors intend to seek the death penalty against Rico "Smiley" Garcia, a gang member who grew up in Windsor, and Ceasar "Lobo" Ramirez, his alleged accomplice, for a gangland-style assassination on Aug. 15, 1998. They are charged with the Salinas shooting of fellow gang leader Michael "Mikeo" Castillo, who once oversaw the gang's drug operations in Sonoma County.

    At the time of the Salinas killing, Garcia and Ramirez were in charge of the Nuestra Familia's Sonoma County "regiment," according to authorities.

    Authorities accuse Nuestra Familia leader "Tex" Hernandez of approving Castillo's killing by Garcia and Ramirez. Hernandez is identified as running the gang's "regimental security department" from behind bars at Pelican Bay.

    James "Tibbs" Morado and Cornelio Tristan, two of the three imprisoned "generals" in the prison gang's high command, face federal charges of conspiracy to murder and racketeering for their alleged roles in a string of violent crimes and drug dealing in the North Bay, the Central Valley and the Central Coast.

    A third general -- Joseph "Pinky" Hernandez -- was not indicted but could face prosecution in the future, according to authorities.


    Thirty local, regional, state and federal agencies, led by the FBI and the Santa Rosa Police Department, particpated in the Operation Black Widow investigation resulting in indictments of prison gang leaders. The included:

  • Police departments in Santa Rosa, Salinas, San Francisco, San Jose, Visalia, Modesto, Tracy, Stockton and Watsonville
  • Sheriff's offices in Sonoma, Santa Cruz, Sacramento, Alameda and Monterey counties

  • District Attorney's offices in Sonoma, Tulare, Alameda, Santa Clara and Monterey counties

  • California Department of Corrections Special Services Unit

  • Sonoma County Multi-Agency, Tulare County and Alameda gang task forces

  • U.S. Attorney's Office

  • Department of Justice/Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement Violence Suppression Unit

  • Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms

  • Drug Enforcement Agency

  • Secret Service

  • Tex Hernandez and Gerald "Cuete" Rubalcaba, who are next in command under the gang generals, also face federal conspiracy to murder and racketeering charges. Sheldon "Skip" Villanueva, a lower-ranking commander in the Nuestra Familia, and Daniel "Stork" Perez, suspected of being involved as far back as 1982 in gang-related "hits," also face conspiracy to murder and racketeering charges.

    In addition, David Rocha, a gangster rap musician from Tracy who is known as "Sir Dyno," and Vidal "Spider" Fabela of Sacramento were indicted for conspiring with Nuestra Familia leaders to sell drugs and use the profits to produce a controversial 1998 CD called "Generations of United Norteños."

    Imprisoned gang leaders saw the recording as an opportunity to unite northern street gangs, and reap the profits. The lyrics, which advocate violence toward rival gang members known as "sureños," were so inflammatory that community outreach groups in Santa Rosa, Salinas, Stockton and other cities petitioned music stores to stop distribution of the CD.

    In addition to seeking the death penalty against Garcia and Ramirez, federal agents and local gang investigators at Monday's news conference are expected to outline a litany of other crimes ranging from a gangland-style assassination of Robert "Brown Bob" Viramontes in San Jose to street killings, extortion, drug dealing, robberies and violent street assaults.

    The names of some of the victims, including Santa Rosan Darren Hardin, who was gunned down in 1997 after being lured to a South Park home, turned up on one of 10 gang "hit" lists uncovered in the investigation.

    Authorities said more gang indictments are planned at the federal level and in Sonoma County.

    "The hit lists in and of themselves underscore the murderous intent of these gang leaders," said Santa Rosa Police Chief Michael Dunbaugh.

    By seeking the death penalty, U.S. attorneys are marking a major shift in government policy toward prison gang leaders and their control over street gangs. The Nuestra Familia case would be the first federal death penalty trial in Northern California since 1948.

    Although Congress revived the death penalty for some federal crimes in 1988, the scheduled execution next month of convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh would be the first in 37 years.

    "There isn't one single case that's going to shut the gang down. But this action will cause major disruptions to their activities, and hopefully provide law enforcement agencies and communities a chance to better coordinate efforts to curb gang violence," said Sonoma County District Attorney Mike Mullins.

    Beyond the message sent by a death penalty prosecution, authorities hope to remove high-ranking gang leaders from state prisons and place them in out-of-state federal prisons far from their home bases.

    You can reach Staff Writer Mike Geniella at 462-6470 or e-mail mgeniella@pressdemocrat.com.




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