This is an updated version of an article originally posted on Friday, February 29.
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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.
Nor is the fight for Drew Street over. Because while the city wasn't looking, neighbors and police say, the clever Leons quietly tried to stake yet another claim, surprising neighbors and cops by coming up with enough money — $85,000 — to pay off a lien brought against the house when the city boarded it up.
At a splashy press conference in early 2007, City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo and City Hall politicians and police brass acted as though they had finally outsmarted the Leons.
The city does in fact still hold a few cards: A court injunction, in place until 2010, requires the owners of the property to sell it only to non-gang members. In addition, many of the Leons, including 44-year-old Maria, are banned from even approaching their old headquarters. And city-code inspectors have found the home uninhabitable and ordered it brought up to code before anyone can move in. Moreover, the city's Building and Safety department has scheduled an April 8 hearing to discuss its request that the house be demolished.
But with word sweeping through the embattled neighborhood that the $85,000 penalty has been paid, many fear the house will soon be open for business. “Did you hear?” says another officer who refused to be named. “Three years of investigation. What a waste.”
THE COMMUNITY POLICE ADVISORY BOARD for the city's northeast area meets in a classroomlike setting at the Los Angeles Police Department's Northeast Station — a safe meeting locale for jumpy residents. Thirty minutes into the meeting and five days after the shootout, Captain Jose Perez tells the roughly 40 or so neighbors that Rafael “Stomper” Carrillo — who allegedly drove one of the two getaway cars after February's shooting rampage — has just been nabbed by police in the San Fernando Valley.
Unabashed cheering breaks out among the working-class residents, from a mix of white and Latino households with a sprinkling of blacks.
Carrillo — an alleged drug dealer on Drew Street — vanished after he and a carload of Avenues gang members allegedly exchanged gunfire with LAPD gang officers in the shootout that ended the life of Danny Leon, shutting down blocks of residential streets and a grade school while cops tracked the shooters. Local residents have been sweating it out ever since.
Despite the open cheering of the police on this night, the Leon family legacy has created plenty of blow-back for the cops — blow-back that one day could migrate up the food chain to Los Angeles City Hall, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo.
Residents want to know: Why can't they clean out overt crime from this tiny spot of real estate?
Some neighbors loudly criticized the way the police department handled the lockdown and evacuations following the shootout. Parents were furious that their kids were locked down for eight hours in nearby schools. Some neighbors were angry that they were roused from their homes and not allowed to return for hours.
“It was a huge mess,” says one officer matter-of-factly about resident complaints. “Where are you going to put us up tonight? Who is going to pay for our McDonald's? After eight hours of getting that, it got old. People were understandably upset. We are not perfect.”
The LAPD officer who didn't want to be identified tells the Weekly that one resident quickly accused police of planting the huge AK-47 on Leon — not exactly the weapon of choice for hidden “throw down” weapons that corrupt cops toss into crime scenes. “Did we plant the facemask too?” the bewildered cop says, shaking his head in frustration. The Leon family will “probably file a lawsuit,” he adds bitterly.
On the blog Topix.com, “anonymous” writes: “wats up with the cops shooting someone in the head. well i live there and thats wat happened and they still haven't picked up his body. theres no respect from the cops or from the gang. wheres the love.”
On MySpace.com, one profile depicts a menacing skull with demon eyes that calls for death to the LAPD — citing the police code for murder, “187,” against the “Pigz.”
TELL-TALE TENNIS SHOES HANG from power lines above Drew Street, letting customers know that drug dealers are present and open for business. Tall, wrought-iron fences surround the mostly stucco single-family homes and dense apartment buildings, but they don't keep the bad elements out — or in.
The area is isolated by the Glendale Freeway to the southeast, and by Forest Lawn cemetery to the north and west. A hillside runs perpendicular to Drew Street, upon which multistory apartments with signs desolately touting “luxury townhouses” provide local criminals with excellent high ground — lookouts from which they can easily spot incoming police cars. Two apartment buildings on Drew Street are known as “Twin Towers” — named after the two multistory buildings at the Los Angeles County Jail — because they harbor so many convicted felons and convicted and suspected drug dealers.
Drew Street is a testament to city planning gone bad, home to more than 8,000 residents who mostly live in more than 1,500 apartment units the city allowed developers to cram into the area during the 1970s, wiping out a quiet single-family enclave. The residents are a mix of illegal immigrants and second-generation Mexican immigrants, elderly Filipinos and a few white and black families. Housing is definitely “affordable”: a one-bedroom costs about $750 per month; a two bedroom, $950.
It's a dumping ground for stolen vehicles, a well-known drug bazaar — and a tough place to try to be a good citizen. Graffiti covers the sidewalks, the curbs, the streets, the apartment buildings — even the neglected trees. “I had to paint the back of my building four times in the last year-and-a-half,” says apartment owner Eduardo Garcia — a rare resident willing to give his name. “I had to paint the front twice … I can't have managers do it because [local thugs] will threaten him and tell him they will kill him.”
Twice, when the Los Angeles City Council tried to install surveillance cameras on Drew Street, they quickly were shot out and stolen — both times — so the city gave up. Yet normal, law-abiding families are trying to make a stand here. On nearby Weldon Street, you can see nice houses with Nissan Pathfinders or better parked in their driveways. These families create a thin layer of civil society in an area run by the Avenues gang, which takes its name from the numbered corridors that slice across Figueroa Street several miles away in Highland Park's bustling yet economically poor shopping district.
The Avenues operates in cliques, each of which claims a gang territory based on where the members live. Gang experts say that in recent years, longtime Avenues gangsters have begun to allow tough, illegal Mexican immigrants to join their ranks, with Drew Street drawing immigrants from a rough village in Mexico's Guerrero State — an area that has a reputation for extreme lawlessness. This new mix spells disaster, says one law-enforcement official, because, “Here is one group of people who already had a tremendously lawless culture, on top of another, existing violent gang. And the synergy of the two produced what we saw the other day.”
It wasn't always this way. Developer Andrew Glassell bought a large chunk of property in northeast Los Angeles in the 1880s, building his ranch house on land that is now home to troubled Washington Irving Middle School. In the early 1900s, Glassell sold part of his property to Forest Lawn cemetery and to developers of single-family homes.
After World War II, newly arrived European, Russian and Hispanic immigrants moved into what was then a nice, quiet spot to live. But in later decades, the city allowed developers to buy up the properties and turn them into 12-to-20-unit apartment complexes. Downtown planners never dreamed what was to come.
“There was a large influx of immigrants coming into the area in the '70s,” says Bradley, who owns land in the area and goes by a single name. Immigrants weren't always welcome on the hilltops of Mount Washington and nearby areas, but Drew Street was more welcoming. Unfortunately, the laid-back neighborhood had, by the 1980s, attracted drug dealers and the Mexican mafia.
MARIA LEON MOVED FROM GUERRERO State to Drew Street around 1985. The once-petite 5-foot-2-inch toughie immediately got into a brush with cops, arrested in October of 1985 for assault with a deadly weapon. As her arrests piled up, so did her births — 13 kids by four or five men. Her sons — including Jose Leon, Danny Leon, Nicolas Real, Randy Martinez, Francisco Real and Jesus Martinez — all grew up on Drew Street, and most attended Fletcher Drive Elementary and Washington Irving Middle schools.
A law-enforcement official tells the Weekly that Leon's arrests included theft in 1986; burglary in Riverside County in 1986; selling PCP and marijuana in 1992; and extortion and drug dealing in 1994.
She was finally convicted of drug felonies, in 1995 and again in 1997, and by 1998 she was one of the first Avenues gangsters supervised by the probation department under the CLEAR gang task force, which was inspired by the horrific September 1995 murder of 3-year-old Stephanie Kuhen after her parents made a wrong turn in their car and ended up in no-man's land — an alley near Division Street in Glassell Park. That same year, Leon was convicted of petty theft.
Her longest stint in prison came after a Halloween bust in 2002, when the Glendale Police Department used a search warrant to enter the longtime Leon home on Drew Street. She was arrested for narcotics sales and child endangerment after officers found automatic weapons and explosives throughout the home — where she was also raising young children.
In 2003, while she was in prison, a local man was shot to death in her front yard — an apparent drug deal gone bad. Inside the house, the cops discovered a shrine to the patron saint of narco trafficking, Jesus Malverde, a folklore hero in crime-ridden Sinaloa. Danny Leon and his half-brother, Francisco Real, were convicted of accessory to murder in the killing.
Then Maria Leon was released from state prison in 2006. One resident says the Leons and the Avenues gang are constantly outsmarting the justice system. “It is so weird — they go to jail and after a day they're out,” says a resident who grew up with the Leon boys. “How can it be so soon? How can they get out of jail so fast? People who work and have a good life — they get deported.”
Apartment owner Garcia echoes the sentiment, saying, “They can't own the whole neighborhood like that. It shouldn't be happening in this day and age.”
Garcia has largely given up on city police and City Hall, saying a federal task force “is what is needed. Basically, it's a war zone there to a certain extent — the intelligence and the lookouts on the corners. There are federal crimes taking place in the area.”
JUST OVER A YEAR AGO, police closed off a block of Drew Street with yellow crime tape, and black-and-white cruisers stood guard at the street's entrance. Locals peered out of windows from buildings scrawled with gang graffiti: Aves, Sicko, Hefty and Chuko. Avenues gang members stood in groups nearby, almost amused as City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo announced that his office had boarded up the Leon family home.
It is “one step in our effort to eradicate gangs in the neighborhood,” said Delgadillo.
Inside the house, his office encountered a veritable fortress. Gadgetry that looked like it came out of a James Bond movie included surveillance cameras, steel window bars and a laser tripwire system.
The Leon property was one of the first to be targeted by the city attorney's nuisance-abatement program Project Tough, part of Delgadillo's plan to drive gangs out of neighborhoods. It sounded like a good idea in 2005, when a Superior Court judge issued a preliminary injunction that mandated the eviction of Leon's son Nicolas Real, whom Delgadillo alleged acted as a front for the family, selling drugs from the house. Incredibly, the judge named another 54 people, either arrested at the house or identified as nuisances, who are also prevented from going near it. That long list includes Maria and Danny Leon.
In September 2006, the Leons were ordered to pay $75,000 in costs and penalties — and to sell the Drew Street property within four months. A real estate flier quickly issued by the family that read “Just Listed” sought $565,000 for two bedrooms, one bath and a garage. The flier touted the property as “a great family home” with marble in the bath. In another twist, the actual owners of the home have turned out to be a man in Arizona and another person in Los Angeles — not Leon — and Delgadillo's office suspects the two are straw men for the Leon family. One of the owners told city officials to go through Leon's son with any questions regarding the house. And one of the two owners initially denied owning the house.
So, at a press conference in early 2007, Delgadillo, flanked by Police Chief William Bratton and City Councilman Eric Garcetti, told an army of reporters that the penalties had not been paid, and the property had not been sold.
As a result, the city barricaded the home and fenced up the land, filing a lien for the costs plus a penalty. The lien would be used to initiate foreclosure proceedings, and city officials said the proceedings could be stopped if the owners sold the property to someone not affiliated with gangs.
“Every neighborhood has the right to live free from fear,” said Garcetti at a podium in front of the house. “Those who traffic in drugs, death and fear, it is the city's promise that your time here is up.”
Because the city attorney's “closure order” was recently lifted by the courts, the house can now be sold — but it cannot be inhabited until its extensive code violations are fixed. This new development has sent fear through the area, with neighbor Bradley telling the Weekly, “The Leon family is back. At the last hour, they came up with $85,000 [the original $75,000 plus interest] to get the house back. The city attorney thought by levying punitive damages on the family, they couldn't come up with the funds.”
Rocky Delgadillo's office confirms that the $85,000 fine was paid, but states that the Leon family and the house's official owners are still bound by the rules of the permanent injunction. As for Leon, she now lives in the high desert, with several of her huge brood dead or in jail. And Eduardo Garcia wonders why nothing ever changes on Drew Street. “They can put a lid on militias, white supremacists, Columbian mafia and the Italian mafia,” he says. “So why can't they take care of this little problem?”