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.
“All because of this little stupid punk who had to go and shoot a cop,” he said. “He fucked everything up for a lot of people. So now they are going to strike me out for the dope. I’m through. I’m gone. I’m done. All because of him.”
Asked if it is a third strike for him, Campos doesn’t blink: “This is like my fifth strike.”
As for murder suspect Arenas’ prospects in prison, Campos said the gang would be in touch. “If we can get a hold of him, yeah, he’s going to have a little problem.”
But Campos may also have a little problem himself back in the joint, according to the parole agent. “Campos is an Eme [Mexican Mafia] dropout. Once he’s back inside, there will be a green light on him. They will try to hit him,” he said.
Despite the first massive raid against the gang, some veteran beat cops are still uncertain that the city’s leaders are prepared to fight as completely and for as long as is necessary.
“This has to be done over the long haul. It has to be an investment,” said Officer Glenn Stires. “This cannot be a Band-Aid approach to the problem, this requires surgery followed by chemotherapy. We have to actually mean ‘zero tolerance,’ which means refusing to plea-bargain gang prosecution, which means removing children from gang houses, arresting the mom for child endangerment and seizing the house. We have to deny the gang everything: deny them location, deny them identity and deny them the lifestyle. Their choices have to be: Move, quit or die.”
Stires, a member of the department’s Major Crimes Task Force who grew up in Pomona and has spent 15 years patrolling its streets, said the city has been ambivalent and inconsistent in the past when dealing with the professional predators of 12th Street.
“This gang has been committing horrendous crimes for more than 50 years. What epiphany did the City Council just have last week? This gang should have been stopped 50 years ago,” Stires said. “Gangs will always exist, but you have to break their will and ability to terrorize the community.”
Officer Mondo LaNier, another veteran street cop who grew up in Pomona and who was the officer who put the cuffs on Arenas, said gang members remain a problem for the city but no longer wreak the havoc that in the late 1980s and early 1990s made Pomona one of the deadliest cities in the nation. Back then, violence between Latino and black gangs had reached a bloody crescendo that still echoes today.
But as a result of sentencing enhancements for gang members and the Three Strikes law, many of the veteranos and O.G.s in Pomona gangs went down hard, and the violence finally plunged with the shot callers off the streets, according to LaNier.
Yet a bad reputation is tough for a city to shake, and 12th Street’s rap sheet remains a stain on the city that appears to be growing bigger than life, as the Los Angeles Times reported the gang had nearly 1,000 members. That figure is fiction, according to Detective Marcus Perez, who runs Pomona P.D.’s gang-suppression unit. Perez pegs 12th Street’s actual membership roll at closer to 200, with a smaller core of actual committed members.
Even then, 12th Street outnumbers Pomona’s two-man gang unit 100-to-1, which doesn’t bode well for any effort to eradicate the gang. And even though there has been a drop in the bloodshed that marked the era of staggering gang violence, members of the gang continue to terrorize the city for the thrill of it. A 12th Street member was recently convicted of killing two African-Americans he saw on the street simply because he didn’t like blacks in the gang’s turf.
“A year from now 12th Street will still be there, with maybe a new generation of youngsters riding bikes around the neighborhood shooting at people, but no one will be putting in work the way they used to,” LaNier said. “But what these guys have to understand is that the people are ready to throw them away for good now.”
Perez said that ultimately the bigger challenge will be ending the bizarre allure of gang life and the mantle of respect the culture bestows to the very thugs who terrorize their own community — a challenge that has to be met by the community, not by the cops.
“You’ve got kids on campus that see a gangster and say, ‘Hey, there goes Sniper, he’s crazy, huh!’ as if he’s cool because he is a thug,” Perez said. “Why aren’t they heaping ridicule and scorn on him? That’s the logical thing to do, that’s what would make sense, but there is nothing logical about this, and none of it makes sense.”
Looking at 3-year-old Angel’s room filled with gang paraphernalia, it’s obvious that she is already well on her way to indoctrination into 12th Street, and listening to her mom explain, “It’s no big deal,” it is easy to see what Perez means.