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
When a gang member fatally wounded Burbank Police Officer Matthew Pavelka in 2003, officers vowed that they would not rest until they stopped the gang that killed one of their own.
The officers lived up to their promise Tuesday with the help of more than 1,300 federal and local law-enforcement officers who took part in dozens of predawn raids dubbed “Operation Silent Night” that stretched from Los Angeles to Palmdale and Rosamond and as far away as Bakersfield, arresting 23 suspected Vineland Boyz gang members who call the San Fernando Valley cities of Sylmar, Sunland and Burbank home.
“It is the ultimate affront to attack and kill those that protect others,” said Burbank Police Chief Thomas Hoefel at a press conference, flanked by LAPD Chief William Bratton. “The gang has terrorized people of Burbank for years. Today is Armageddon. They will have new turf to defend in the federal prison system.”
The arrests capped off an 18-month investigation and represented one of the biggest multiagency operations in recent Southern California history. During the course of the investigation, which totaled more than 200 arrests, including those netted in Operation Silent Night, more than a million dollars was confiscated as well as 75 firearms and 300 pounds of cocaine, methamphetamines and heroin.
Founded in the 1980s by members of a San Fernando Valley–area football team, the Vineland Boyz first hit the radar of the police in 1988 after LAPD Officer James Beyea was killed after he confronted a 17-year-old suspected Vineland Boyz gang member in North Hollywood during a burglary investigation. Over the years, the Vineland Boyz absorbed several other local street gangs, eschewed traditional gang attire and, according to a federal indictment, “established itself as one of the most violent street gangs in the San Fernando Valley,” eventually forging an alliance with the Mexican Mafia, to whom the gang paid “taxes” on its drug-trafficking revenues in exchange for protection in prison.
But it wasn’t until the death of Pavelka, who was fatally wounded in a November 15, 2004, shootout with alleged gang member David Garcia in a parking lot at the Ramada Inn near the Bob Hope Airport, that authorities went after the 259-member gang.
“There are gangs bigger, but they have been a thorn in the side of law enforcement dating back to 1988,” said Anthony Burke, supervisory inspector with the U.S. Marshals Service, who took part in an early-morning raid with 40 other officers from different agencies at a chicken farm near Lancaster, which yielded a cache of weapons. “They have been involved in everything from kidnapping, robbery and narcotic sales, and it was time to make them a target.” The Marshals Service had been called upon to track fugitive members of the Vineland Boyz.
Shortly after Pavelka’s death, Burbank police, who were surprised at the sophistication of the Vineland Boyz gang, enlisted local and federal authorities for help. The Burbank P.D.’s call for help, first to the LAPD, led to the formation of a local chapter of a nationwide joint-agency effort called the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force. The local task force was made up of Los Angeles–area police departments, the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration as well as the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“We have the ability to put bodies together that they just don’t have,” said Thom Mrozek, spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “There are so many crimes to respond to, they cannot spend eight hours every day working on one investigation. We like to focus on where we are going to get the biggest bang for our buck, and sometimes we get a home run.”
The 56-count federal indictment, which targets more than 35 defendants, accused the suspected gang members of violating federal drug and weapons laws as well as violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. The 159-page indictment, which outlined over 10 years of crimes committed by the gang, also included wiretapped conversations about an armed robbery at a Bank of America Automated Teller Machine, an order to kill an individual who was believed to have cooperated with law enforcement, and the murder of Pavelka, whom Garcia told another defendant was “crying like a bitch” and “yelling for help” before the alleged gang member shot him.
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