Raids net 22 sus­pects tied to mo­tor­cy­cle gang

Pros­e­cu­tors por­tray Va­gos group as ‘highly or­ga­nized,’ with lead­ers ac­cused of mur­der and drug sales.

Los Angeles Times - - CITY & STATE - By Joel Ru­bin joel.ru­bin@la­times.com Twit­ter: @joel­ru­bin

Fed­eral agents launched a sweep­ing op­er­a­tion against the Va­gos biker gang Fri­day, ar­rest­ing many of the group’s lead­ers in raids through­out Cal­i­for­nia, Ne­vada and Hawaii, au­thor­i­ties said.

A grand jury in­dict­ment that was un­sealed af­ter the co­or­di­nated, early-morn­ing ar­rests lev­eled fed­eral rack­e­teer­ing charges against 23 peo­ple. Agents and po­lice of­fi­cers from var­i­ous agen­cies led by Home­land Se­cu­rity In­ves­ti­ga­tions took 22 of the sus­pects into cus­tody, of­fi­cials said. The 23rd per­son died in re­cent weeks.

Pros­e­cu­tors por­trayed the gang as a “highly or­ga­nized crim­i­nal or­ga­ni­za­tion” in the in­dict­ment and ac­cused the sus­pected mem­bers of car­ry­ing out many crimes, in­clud­ing mur­der, kid­nap­ping and drug sales as part of an ef­fort to bol­ster the gang’s coffers and dom­i­nance over other biker gangs.

Sus­pects ar­rested Fri­day morn­ing were sched­uled to ap­pear in U.S. District Court in the af­ter­noon. The de­fen­dants and their at­tor­neys could not be reached for com­ment.

De­spite the gang’s wellestab­lished rep­u­ta­tion for vi­o­lence and stock­pil­ing weapons, agents en­coun­tered no re­sis­tance as they served ar­rest and search war­rants in a dozen cities be­gin­ning around 5 a.m., au­thor­i­ties said.

The raids were the cul­mi­na­tion of an in­ves­ti­ga­tion stretch­ing back seven years, said HSI Spe­cial Agent Matthew Rice, who helped di­rect the probe. “This is a ma­jor un­der­tak­ing and we hope it causes a ma­jor dis­rup­tion to the gang’s op­er­a­tion. It will take them some time to fill the lead­er­ship void.”

Of the men ar­rested Fri­day, many held in­flu­en­tial po­si­tions in the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s up­per ranks, the in­dict­ment claims. They in­cluded the group’s cur­rent leader, as well as his pre­de­ces­sor.

The Va­gos Out­law Mo­tor­cy­cle Gang is counted as one of the largest and most pow­er­ful biker gangs in the coun­try, Rice said. It started in the 1960s in Cal­i­for­nia and has ex­panded over the decades to in­clude about 1,000 mem­bers in dozens of chap­ters through­out the U.S. and other coun­tries, ac­cord­ing to the in­dict­ment.

In bring­ing the charges against the sus­pected mem­bers, pros­e­cu­tors pre­sented Va­gos as a highly hi­er­ar­chi­cal op­er­a­tion with well-de­fined lines of author­ity, deeply in­grained rules and tra­di­tions that are un­der­pinned by a fierce al­le­giance to the gang and a dis­dain for the rule of law. An in­tri­cate sys­tem of chap­ter dues and taxes, along with drug sales and other il­le­gal ac­tiv­ity, funds the op­er­a­tion, au­thor­i­ties al­lege.

The in­dict­ment paints a por­trait of a group con­sumed by turf bat­tles with ri­val gangs such as the Hells Angels and Mon­gols, as well as with se­verely pun­ish­ing mem­bers who were thought to have be­trayed the gang by beat­ing them.

Among other crimes, the in­dict­ment charges eight Va­gos mem­bers, in­clud­ing Ernesto Manuel Gon­za­lez, with the 2011 death of a Hells Angels mem­ber at the Nugget Ho­tel and Casino in Sparks, Nev.

“The mur­der com­mit­ted by Ernesto Gon­za­lez in the Nugget Casino was al­ways a part of a larger crim­i­nal con­spir­acy, which has been made even more clear today,” said Christo­pher Hicks, district at­tor­ney for Washoe County, Nev.

Along with the slay­ing, the in­dict­ment in­cludes a litany of other sus­pected crim­i­nal acts, in­clud­ing beat­ings and or­ders from higher-ups given to sub­or­di­nates to kill or beat ri­vals and dis­loyal mem­bers. Sev­eral sales of metham­phetamine and co­caine are also doc­u­mented in the in­dict­ment.

To build their case, au­thor­i­ties re­lied on wire taps, as well as mem­bers they turned into in­for­mants and at least one un­der­cover law en­force­ment of­fi­cer who made it through the gang’s ex­haus­tive vet­ting process to be­come a mem­ber, ac­cord­ing to the in­dict­ment.

In July 2013, when it was dis­cov­ered that the gang had been in­fil­trated by law en­force­ment, Va­gos lead­ers put out a $100,000 bounty on the head of the un­der­cover of­fi­cer, ac­cord­ing to the in­dict­ment. They of­fered a sim­i­lar re­ward for the killing of the pres­i­dent of the gang ’s Las Ve­gas chap­ter, who was sus­pected of co­op­er­at­ing with au­thor­i­ties.

The Va­gos gang is one of seven groups that fed­eral au­thor­i­ties have for­mally des­ig­nated as out­law mo­tor­cy­cle gangs. A wild shootout and brawl be­tween gangs in 2015 at a Texas restau­rant that left nine peo­ple dead pro­vided a stark re­minder of the groups’ pen­chant for vi­o­lence.

Pho­to­graphs by Ir­fan Khan Los Angeles Times

SUS­PECTS sit hand­cuffed in Moreno Val­ley on Fri­day. Fed­eral agents and po­lice from agen­cies in Cal­i­for­nia, Ne­vada and Hawaii ar­rested many of the Va­gos mo­tor­cy­cle gang’s lead­ers, au­thor­i­ties said.

THE GANG is por­trayed as a “highly or­ga­nized crim­i­nal or­ga­ni­za­tion” in the fed­eral in­dict­ment.

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