By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
It’s Friday evening and as dusk settles across the gritty streets of Pomona’s south side, two things quickly become apparent: who is on the street and who is not. Hundreds of small children flit about front yards and along sidewalks, invigorated by a cool evening breeze and carefree in the final moments before it gets dark and they are called inside to dinner.
Yet, noticeably absent on this evening are the homeboys of 12th Street, whose shaved heads, sullen stares and intimidating presence have long been a dark fixture in these neighborhoods that they claim as their own. Even in the park that once bore their name and was frequently used as a public headquarters to display their numbers and muscle, only soccer players rumble while lovers make plans on blankets scattered under the trees.
The relative serenity is soothing but deceptive, for there has not been an exodus of gang members. The gang is in hiding, and with good reason: Despite flawless skies above, the weather report for the homeboys of 12th Street calls for a massive Pomona Police Department shit storm, with showers definitely expected.
The April 21 murder of 35-year-old California Highway Patrol Officer Thomas Steiner, who was gunned down as he left the courthouse in Pomona, has triggered what promises to be the most concerted effort yet by the city to crush its oldest and largest street gang. But just how effective those efforts will be, and even whether the city is committed to the long haul, is being questioned by the city’s cops themselves.
Speculation has been rampant that suspected killer Valentino Mitchell Arenas, who was captured the next day, randomly shot Steiner while he was out “hunting cops” in an effort to establish his thug credibility with 12th Street. Arenas, a 16-year-old dropout whose father is a 12th Street member, has alternately been described as a wannabe and an actual member of the gang.
While gang initiations can take several forms, from simply getting the nod from veteranos to withstanding a savage pummeling by other gang members, randomly killing a police officer does not qualify as a rite of entry. Police officers and parole agents who work with street gangs said while it might make for a potent urban legend, killing cops is simply bad business.
Though it is accepted by city leaders and police brass that Steiner’s killing was not a gang hit per se, the city has given a green light for the cops to exact a bitter payback from 12th Street. Pomona Police Chief James Lewis told his command staff last week that he intends to destroy the gang.
Considering 12th Street’s roots date as far back as the 1940s in south Pomona, wiping the gang clean from the very streets that their indiscriminate violence has left permanently scarred is going to be more easily proclaimed than accomplished. Especially in a city perpetually strapped for cash to cover even basic services.
But the city is intent on making it clear that they are indeed serious, this time.
Last Monday morning, the storm broke against 12th Street, with more than 450 law-enforcement officers from 26 different city, county, state and federal agencies swooping down on 143 locations throughout the city.
With helicopters circling above and police dogs in tow, the heavily armed strike teams sought to hammer the gang’s roster by finding members who are violating the terms of their parole.
It wasn’t hard to do.
Gabriel Campos, a 42-year-old career criminal and member of 12th Street since he was 16, seemed perplexed as the parole agent asked him what the .38-caliber ammunition, the bayonet, the balloons of heroin, syringes and spoons and the bolt cutters were doing at his parents’ house, where he is staying while on parole.
“That shit ain’t mine, man,” Campos said.
When the agent explained that if it wasn’t his it must belong to his family and they’d be the ones going to jail, Campos suddenly said the balloons were his, but he didn’t know what was in them.
“It’s heroin,” the officer said.
“No, it’s not,” Campos insisted.
“Well, if you don’t know what’s in the balloons you had stashed in your gear, how can you tell us what it’s not? Why don’t you just tell us what it is then?”
His brow furrows for a moment. “Well, I don’t know what it is, but whatever it is, it’s not heroin,” Campos said.
Inside the small bungalow on Park Avenue where Campos had been staying, the extent of just what the city is facing in the war against 12th Street crystallizes. Competing for wall space with the Virgin Mary, Christ and the crucifix are ubiquitous 12th Street icons: Plastic sharks (symbol of the gang’s original name, Sharkies) abound, as does the number 12.
Angel, a 3-year-old girl who lives in the home, has a room filled with gang memorabilia. Her Barbie dolls are propped up against a tribute to the gang.
His hands cuffed behind his back, Campos said the gang knows what’s in store for its members.
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