The Gangsters of Drew Street, Glassell Park 

Why neither God nor the police can stop them

Wednesday, Mar 5 2008

This is an updated version of an article originally posted on Friday, February 29.

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  • Danny Leon

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Danny Leon

Rena Kosnett

(Click to enlarge)

Rena Kosnett

(Click to enlarge)

MORE THAN 100 YEARS AGO, Drew Street was a beautiful green spot named by pioneer Andrew Glassell after his son, Drew. For most of the 20th century, it was a tucked-away suburban enclave flanked by the Los Angeles River and Glendale's Forest Lawn cemetery. Then, starting in the 1960s, the city built apartments on its dead-end streets and avenues — and a bad element moved in, seeing the isolated little neighborhood as the perfect lair.

Drew Street, with its long, straight rise, offered the perfect viewing base from which to espy approaching cop cars. It turned out to be just the thing for Maria "Chata" Leon, a young toughie from a rough, lawless Mexican village who settled there and gave birth to 13 children — a half-dozen of whom became criminals. With a new baby on her hip every year or two, Leon dealt drugs and staked her claim on Drew Street, in a Bleak House stocked with guns and explosives.

She regularly did stints in jail and prison, and her growing brood, the extended Leon crime family, which has close ties to the Avenues gang that controls the area, slowly turned Drew Street into a hellish microcommunity that L.A. cops, politicians and code enforcers could not turn around. But hope materialized last year, when the city announced it was shutting down the Leon home and banning most of the Leon brood from their longtime family compound.

Leon was already gone, moved to Victorville, and many of her violent and drug-dealing sons were in prison. Some Glassell Park neighbors, who tell stories of around-the-clock drug deals and rampant gang activity at the house — including a murder in Leon's front yard — began to hope the nightmare might be over.

Then, last month, Drew Street erupted in AK-47 gunfire, forcing cops to evacuate two Los Angeles public schools and an entire neighborhood. And the son that some law enforcement officials described as the worst of Leon's boys, Danny "Klever" Leon, lay dead.

The mayhem erupted at about 11:30 a.m. on February 21, when three Avenues gangsters allegedly pulled up in two cars and opened fire on 36-year-old Marcos Salas and his 2-year-old granddaughter near Aragon Avenue Elementary School in Cypress Park. Riddled with 15 bullets, Salas, who had former gang ties, was killed instantly, but the tiny toddler survived. The shooting was over "taxes" the Mexican Mafia collects on local drug sales, and possibly in revenge for the 2007 death of Danny Leon's half-brother Randy Martinez.

The gangsters then exchanged gunfire with occupants of a black van — police speculate that the vehicle was probably full of Cypress Park gangsters — before heading back to Drew Street, where a series of gang-controlled homes and apartments are situated, almost mockingly, a couple of hundred yards across the the train tracks from the LAPD's Northeast Station.

There, police say, the suspected shooters were confronted by gang officers and opened fire — among them, Danny Leon, who was brandishing an AK-47 rifle, and his cousin, Jose Gomez, allegedly armed with a handgun.

When the shootout ended, Danny lay dead, the AK-47 by his side, and Gomez was wounded. Six hours later, a bevy of circling TV helicopters filming every movement, an LAPD canine team arrested a third suspect, Guillermo Ocampo, but a fourth man, the driver of one of the cars — later identified as Rafael "Stomper" Carrillo — had vanished. Local residents nervously awaited word from police of his whereabouts, fearing he might show up near their homes.

"Most people don't gun people down with an AK-47," says a law-enforcement officer who declined to be named, trying to describe just how frightening Danny Leon was, his dark behavior ingrained by "a background where mom is a drug dealer, his stepfathers are drug dealers. You are used to having people in your family killed. You hurt your closest friends. That is his life story."

Even on L.A.'s meanest streets, says this veteran officer, "I don't think someone exactly like him comes around all that often."

But while neighbors quietly cheer the death of Danny Leon, the fight for safe streets in Glassell Park is far from over. Eight days after the shootout, a gangster funeral party was held for slain grandfather Marcos Salas — just a block from where he was felled by Leon and others. Police confronted a partygoer, alleged Cypress Park gangster Carlos Arevalo, and during a foot chase shot and killed him, recovering a 44-caliber pistol.

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