A 50-YEAR-OLD WOMAN was made to lie in dog feces with a gun to her head, a caretaker was forced to abandon a man stricken with cerebral palsy who wears diapers, a 10-year-old girl was forced into the predawn cold of a winter morning wearing only a T-shirt.
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Last Chance: The city hopes to seize this Venice property, home to two older women who could not stop their relatives' activities.
Those stories are being told by Venice, Inglewood and Santa Monica residents who found themselves at the wrong end of a sweeping series of law-enforcement raids designed to shut down gang activity on February 19. They were not, however, the stories trumpeted by law enforcement at a press conference immediately following the action.
The military-like operation targeted alleged members of the Venice Shoreline Crips believed to be living at or using roughly 24 homes, casting a wide net for the gang in several Southern California neighborhoods simultaneously. It was executed with some 300 law-enforcement officers, a convoy of unmarked cars and an armored vehicle with turretlike openings for heavy weaponry. A coalition of local and federal law-enforcement agencies, including the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), joined the raids, which were spun afterward by City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo as the successful culmination of six months of planning, resulting in 19 arrests and eviction notices against 13 people.
How successful was the operation?
Police and other law-enforcement personnel came away empty-handed in their search for gang members or illegal weapons in seven households the L.A. Weekly initially interviewed – a finding corroborated by an LAPD spokesman. According to residents, drugs were found in only one of those seven houses – in the room of a resident of a sober-living home who is not believed to be a gang member. No charges were filed against the woman, who has since been expelled from the home. Residents of three additional homes targeted in the raid told the Weekly that officers found nothing, and that the searches produced no evidence.
Despite a multijurisdictional press conference that generated a lot of news coverage, LAPD detective Roger Gilbert says drugs were confiscated at just two of 24 homes. That is probably a lower incidence than if police had raided a suburban area at random. Sergeant Lee Sands, an LAPD spokesman, says, “I can tell you that warrants were a success [in] that numerous locations were found not to be involved.”
The raids were aimed at the gang-riddled Oakwood area of Venice and beyond. Inglewood homeowner Gwen Webster says police showed up at her house looking for her 32-year-old son. According to Webster, when she explained that he didn't live with her, they insisted that they had seen him driving there every night. Says Webster, “They were undercover [police] who looked like crackheads – police officers who looked like gang members.”
Webster denies that her son still drops by, saying she isn't on speaking terms with him due to a dispute with his wife. The day after the raid, she says, she went to the LAPD Pacific Division and pointed out to officers a report in their own files which lists her son's actual address – different from hers. “To me, their job as detectives is to investigate,” says Webster.
Mae Phillips, a 74-year-old Oakwood widow, says a team broke down her front door in search of her grandson – evidently unaware, she claims, that he hadn't lived there for two years. “I put him out,” Phillips says. “He wouldn't go to school and he wouldn't work. So he can't be around me.” She insists that she last saw her grandson at her home more than three months ago.
Some residents of raided homes say they were punished because, without their permission or knowledge, sons, nephews or grandsons had used their mailing addresses since as far back as 2003. But, locals say, police have much more recent information indicating that some suspected gang members had vacated the homes: One family had filed a restraining order against a relative, and in another case, residents say, the suspect was already sitting in jail the night of the raid.
Venice residents have gathered for three community meetings, many of them complaining that this behavior by law enforcement would never fly in more upscale communities, like Beverly Hills.
Gilbert, a member of the LAPD's Narcotics Abatement Unit and the supervisor who oversaw the investigative phase of the operation, says that drugs or weapons purchases have been tied to many of the homes. He argues that family members sometimes forgive relatives – after seeking restraining orders or kicking them out.
Sands offers: “In some of the residences searched, there was no evidence of gang affiliation,” so further action “will not be sought.”
That's cold comfort to one Santa Monica grandmother. She says a raid team found nothing at her residence, which she shares with several young grandchildren. She says she has not previously had problems with her landlord, but that she now faces eviction. At one community meeting she was palpably afraid that she and her children could end up homeless.?
THE DAY OF THE RAID, Delgadillo touted his action against a longtime trouble spot at 646 Broadway Avenue in Oakwood, serving papers that could lay the foundation for seizure of the home for alleged ongoing narcotics sales. The elderly owner of the house and her elderly sister, who both suffer from heart problems, admittedly cannot control the criminal activities of their two adult male relatives. But raiding officers apparently did not find drugs, weapons – or either of the men named in warrants.
The homeowner's niece says police shattered a window next to a bedroom where her invalid aunt slept, and an officer used a hatchet to tear down a security barrier. “All he had to do [to open it] was turn a little knob,” she says. Cindy Shin, a spokeswoman for the city attorney, responded by e-mail to the Weekly that “sufficient evidence existed to conclude that the property was again being used for the purpose of selling controlled substances, and thus violating both a court order and state law.”
At the house on Broadway Avenue, officers left the kind of damage that was also seen at other homes: shattered windows, holes made by distraction-blast devices, and trashed front doors with broken locks – compromising the personal security of some residents, who cannot easily afford repairs.
According to residents interviewed by the Weekly, to retain the element of surprise, police lobbed into windows items identified by the LAPD as “star brights,” which explode and then flash, causing temporary blindness.
When officers hit a home in Inglewood with a battering ram, Teresa Moore, Gwen Webster's sister, became separated from her month-old grandchild. Webster and Moore claim officers nearly rammed the infant's crib, after which, Moore says, Webster was ordered to lay down on a bathroom floor covered in dog feces – her panicked dog having run to the bathroom. Days after the raid, Moore was still racked by guilt, remembering how she screamed from the bathroom for officers to be careful around the baby – and an officer yelled back that he saw no baby. The infant was found safe.
In Venice, Antoinette Reynolds, who is the conservator, cousin and neighbor of a 55-year-old man with cerebral palsy, says she was so terrified by the military-looking teams outside that she telephoned an acquaintance to ensure that her cousin would be taken care of if she were injured or or killed.
The LAPD say they found no illegal items in the Venice home of Elnora Cursh, but Cursh says, in a calm, mellifluous voice, “The one thing that bothered me is that they took pictures of me and my son. I was in my pajamas.”
At Mae Phillips' damaged Venice home, police initially refused to resecure her door – telling her, she says, to push a heavy couch against it. Los Angeles City Council member Bill Rosendahl, who represents Venice, says that Captain Joseph Hitner of Pacific Division later assured Phillips that the LAPD will repair the door.
Sitting quietly, listening to the litany of complaints at a recent community meeting, detective Gilbert said the families whose homes were raided “have just as much a right to take their kids for a walk and not get shot” as any other community. Since the raids, he argues, the area is free of drug dealing. But many caught in the raids that night are asking: At what cost?