Police Chief Bill Bratton, City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo and City Councilman Eric Garcetti, along with dozens of police officers, undercover agents and city workers, gathered in Glassell Park Wednesday to celebrate the demolition of a notorious drug house once owned and operated by Avenues gangsters.
Dubbed the “Satellite House” because of a large TV satellite dish on its roof, 3304 Drew Street, long considered the epicenter of the local narcotics trade, was headquarters of Maria “Chata” Leon, the reputed matriarch of a large family of drug-dealing gangsters.
For more than two decades, until her arrest in 2008 by federal authorities, Leon lived in the modest northeast–Los Angeles home with her 13 children — a huge brood that includes alleged Avenues gangsters Jose Leon, Danny Leon, Nicolas Real, Randy Martinez, Francisco Leon and Jesus Martinez, who were all fixtures on Drew Street, situated in a neighborhood isolated by the Glendale Freeway to the southeast, and by Forest Lawn cemetery to the north and west.
In October 2002, after years of trouble connected with the Leon house, Glendale police arrested Leon for narcotics sales and child endangerment, after officers found automatic weapons and explosives stashed throughout the home.
Then, in 2003, a local man was shot to death on the street in front of the Leon house, an apparent drug deal gone bad. In a search warrant, cops discovered a shrine to the patron saint of narco trafficking, Jesus Malverde, a folklore hero in crime-ridden Sinaloa, Mexico. Danny Leon and his half-brother, Francisco Real, were later convicted of accessory to murder in the killing.
In 2005, the City Attorney’s Office filed a public-nuisance lawsuit and a judge issued a permanent injunction that prevented 55 gang members, including Maria Leon’s own family, from congregating near the property. Venturing inside the home, members of the City Attorney’s Office found a veritable fortress: gadgetry straight out of a James Bond movie, including surveillance cameras and a laser tripwire system.
There were no takers when the house went up for sale, so two years ago the city barricaded the property. In another twist, this time unfolding at a 2007 court hearing and seemingly borrowed from an episode of The Wire, Francisco Leon took a Los Angeles deputy city attorney aside and offered to pay the outstanding lien on the house in cash — immediately — if he were allowed to run out and get the money right away. All the prosecutor had to do was stop the proceedings. The deputy city attorney declined the offer.
At the same time, the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety issued abatement orders against numerous code violations at the house, and city inspectors noticed that someone had tried to get under the home’s floor. Deputy City Attorney Nick Karno told L.A. Weekly that rumors swirled that $80,000 in cash was buried there. Last April, Building and Safety Commission members finally declared the house a “public nuisance.”
Then last June, Maria Leon and several of her extended brood were arrested under a federal racketeering indictment naming 70 defendants for murder, extortion, home invasion and witness intimidation.
Delgadillo seemed positively giddy on February 4 that the long ordeal was ending. He told reporters that the Drew Street property is a “terrifying monument to the power of the Avenues [gang].” Delgadillo, who says he was harassed by the Avenues gangsters as a kid when he attended nearby Irving Middle School, says that 3304 Drew Street had such special meaning to the gangsters that some of them wanted a replica of the house tattooed on their bodies.
City officials told the Weekly that the demolition crew wanted to set up the night before but were warned against it because the City Attorney’s Office feared for the workers’ safety because they were afraid the Avenues gangsters would torch the house in an attempt to collect insurance money. Instead, the work crew waited for the politicians to finish a 30-minute press conference- set on a street where graffiti covers sidewalks, buildings — even the neglected trees.
Bratton stood quietly next to Garcetti while neighbors watched from a distance behind yellow crime-scene tape and photographers snapped photos of Maria Leon’s sons’ names — eerily immortalized in concrete near the house’s front porch.
“When you shoot at my police officers, all bets are off,” said Bratton, a reference to a violent incident a year ago, when three Avenues gangsters opened fire on LAPD officers after the police shot to death 36-year-old Marcos Salas as he was walking with his 2-year-old granddaughter near Aragon Avenue Elementary School in Cypress Park.
Danny Leon, brandishing an AK-47 rifle at police, was gunned down during the exchange of gunfire, and his cousin, Jose Gomez, 18, was wounded and later charged with murder and attempted murder.
Then, in December, L.A. Weekly broke the news that one of the two men accused of the execution-style murder of L.A. County Sheriff’s Deputy Juan Abel Escalante as he prepared to leave his home for work was also believed to be a member of Maria Leon’s extended crime family.
Jose Gomez’s 24-year-old brother, Carlos “Stoney” Velasquez, and Guillermo “Pee Wee” Hernandez, 20, were arrested for the murder of Escalante, who was shot about five times in the head outside his family’s home near the 3400 block of Thorpe Avenue in Cypress Park on August 2.
Not everyone gathered at the February 4 press conference and demolition was in the mood to celebrate.
“They destroyed a group of memories,” said Bobby, a young Hispanic who didn’t want to give his full name. He justified the Leons’ criminal reign by insisting, “It is not like we grew up in a rich area. My mom is broke. The house was not a symbol for the gang. It was a way to make money. It is the way they grew up. … It is the only way they knew how to live.”
Another neighbor, Michelle, who didn’t want to give her last name, said she and her daughter don’t feel safe now that the local thug enforcers are gone. “You don’t know who is out here now,” she said.
“If someone bothers you, you talk to someone in the neighborhood,” said Bobby, illuminating how deeply Drew Street had fallen into gangster hands. “If someone stole from you, it would be handled. It was like a neighborhood watch. We don’t call the cops. We beat up people.”