When authorities started calling what would become the largest one-day law enforcement action ever seen in Santa Barbara “Operation Gator Roll,” the name seemed to fit the bill. The task force had one clear, if difficult, mission: to render helpless the Eastside gang.
By the end of 2007, the fact that gang violence had escalated 223 percent in three years was not lost on Police Chief Cam Sanchez, or just about anyone else in the city. The wake-up call came in March, when a gang fight resulted in a 15-year-old boy being stabbed to death in front of Saks Fifth Avenue. Public outcry and common sense told all Santa Barbara law enforcement, from city police to the county DA’s office, that something dramatic had to be done — and fast. “At first, we were trying to figure out whether to do a small joint operation,” explained Senior Deputy District Attorney Hans Almgren, one of three gang prosecutors in Santa Barbara DA’s South County office. Eventually, a very large joint operation formed that included the FBI and U.S. Attorney Thomas O’Brien, head of the Department of Justice’s Central District of California in Los Angeles. The task force soon focused on the Eastside gang as the main perpetrators of the worst crime and violence in the city. Working together for more than a year, 18 federal, state, and local agencies were finally ready to strike by the fall of 2008.
Inside the Dome of Doom
Operation Gator Roll hit Santa Barbara’s Eastside gang like a bolt of lightning. None of them saw it coming. In the early morning of October 15, more than 400 law enforcement officers descended on 71 locations, busting down doors from Los Angeles County to Santa Maria. Nearly 60 suspects were rounded up that day and brought to Earl Warren Showgrounds, where the taskforce had set up the command headquarters. Police cars, buses, SUVs, and all manner of law enforcement jammed the parking lot as groups of young men and women were led into the round auditorium, which some officers started calling the “Dome of Doom.” There they were swiftly processed in a scene of bureaucratic efficiency and young male bravado. Chests puffed out; gang signs flashed. Of the dozens of suspected gang members, some were immediately released, some were booked on state charges, and 28 were arrested on a Federal Grand Jury indictment. It was all over but the shouting.
At 11 a.m., U.S. Attorney O’Brien, DA Christie Stanley, and Chief Sanchez held a press conference to announce that Operation Gator Roll was an unqualified success. The main prize was the 28 men who were on their way to a federal jail in Los Angeles. When those guys started realizing that they were not headed for the familiar confines of Santa Barbara’s lockup, some of the swagger began to fizzle. It really toughened up for 19 of those men, who were indicted under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. A rare but powerful law enforcement tool, the RICO Act had never before been brought to the Central Coast. Now, almost two years later, all those facing federal charges have pled guilty to some sort of state or federal crime and are either serving their time, have served their time, or await sentencing.
In 2009, according to the district attorney’s office, gang-related cases dropped for the first time in three years. To many Santa Barbarans, Operation Gator Roll had accomplished its mission. As a high school teacher who has worked with many gang-affiliated kids put it, “There was a disturbance in the forest that day.”
Welcome to Santa Bruta
The gang lifestyle is nothing new to Santa Barbara; it’s been here in one form or another since the mid twentieth century. There have been bike gangs such as the Hell’s Angels and racist gangs such as the North Side White Boys; there was even a rumored Montecito rich boys gang in the 1980s. And, of course, there has long been the State Street territorial divide now generally staked out by Hispanic street gangs. Robert “Babo” Sosa, a top commander for the prominent prison gang Nuestra Familia now serving a 20-year federal sentence, was from the city. For those living within the gang culture of drug dealing and violence, Santa Barbara has long been known as “Santa Bruta.”
In 2007, Santa Barbara police reported 768 known gang members to the Grand Jury. Then, as now, the largest gang was the Eastside, which has four sub-cliques: Krazies, Traviesos, La Familia, and The Gang. Eastsider territory generally runs east of State Street to Alameda Padre Serra and from Anapamu Street to the beach. Their principal rivals are Westsiders, who claim the neighborhoods west of State Street as their own, and Bohnett Park and Guadalajara Market as their main hangouts. Other Santa Barbara gangs include Carpas in Carpinteria and a number of smaller Goleta gangs.
Gang graffiti pops up most everywhere around town, sometimes as a threat or challenge to other gangs. Tattoos on chests and arms, and occasionally on heads and faces, advertise gang affiliations. Kids flashing gang signs are a common sight, even in photos on MySpace, where Westsiders form a “W” and Eastsiders an “E.” Drive by Pennywise Market near the Franklin Center, a common Eastsider hangout, and you’ll often see the “W” in the store sign scratched out, just as Westsiders will use “3” instead of “E” in their graffiti.
Gang wannabes must “put in work” before joining. Only shot callers, older members of the gang, can decide when someone can be “jumped in” — an initiation ritual where the gang novitiate is beaten up for 10 seconds or so. It becomes an all-encompassing lifestyle, like “a disease,” said former gang member Christopher Diaz. “You get sucked into it, and you just become a person you don’t want to be.”
Violent Uprising in Paradise
The most recent gang crime wave began in early 2007. For decades, police and young street toughs had what might be described as a working relationship. Slowly, however, gang members began flaunting their allegiances openly. Violence and crime became more brazen. Respect for authority seemed to disappear. A notable moment came during a routine street encounter, when one Eastside gang member began yelling at officers: “Fuck you, cop. I’ll kick your ass. Come on, bitch. I’ll fuck you up right now.”
The most violent of these gangs in 2007 and 2008 was the Eastside, a member of which was responsible for the March 2007 Saks Fifth Avenue stabbing that took place on State street in the middle of a sunny, weekday afternoon.
Incidents of alleged gang-related knife attacks were becoming so numerous they could almost be called commonplace:
• In May, a 30-year-old man was hospitalized after being stabbed by a group demanding to know where he was from, a common challenge issued by gang members. Eastsider Edwin Bay (one of the 28 federally indicted men) was arrested for the attack later that night.
• In June, a fight at Rusty’s Pizza on Cabrillo Boulevard left an Eastsider with three stab wounds to his upper left arm and chest. The fight started outside the restaurant but spilled inside, startling family customers. The same month, three Eastsiders armed with knives and a bat attacked a Westsider.
• In mid July, 16-year-old Westsider Lorenzo “Nemo” Carachure was stabbed to death. Another gang-related stabbing occurred days later on upper State Street.
• On September 20, a 17-year-old was stabbed several times after being attacked by armed suspects on the lower Westside. Four days later, a 20-year-old known gang associate was stabbed as he walked alone near Haley and Nopal streets by three teenagers who shouted a gang slogan before repeatedly stabbing him.
• On October 14, a man was allegedly attacked by three Eastsiders who punched him and stabbed him three times in the back in the parking lot of the Spearmint Rhino.
• In November, several gang members, one of whom was brandishing a knife, smashed windows on the Westside. Also that month, an Eastsider stopping at a Westside gas station stabbed a man he believed to be from a rival gang.
In 2008, police reported 12 alleged gang-related stabbings or serious assaults. The death of Emmanuel Roldan, a 15-year-old who was stabbed once in the heart on July 4, 2008, marked the third time in 18 months a Westsider died from knife wounds. Only a month before Operation Gator Roll was launched, two men were shot in a gang fight on the Westside, and in another incident, a young man who was scheduled to testify against the Eastsider charged in the Saks Fifth Avenue murder was himself brutally stabbed multiple times. He survived and went on to testify despite a collapsed lung.
The Mize Guys
It turns out the central figure in this story of Santa Barbara gang life was sitting in Juvenile Hall on the day of Operation Gator Roll. Ruben Mize was 16 at the time and already facing life in prison for the murder of Carachure, plus two other attempted murder charges. Since then, he has been charged with an additional attempted murder, an assault on another Juvenile Hall inmate, and a jumping-in gang crime.
In a way, this is not surprising, since just about every male member of Mize’s family has been connected to some form of gang and criminal activity. His two older brothers, Anthony and Robert Martinez, and his uncles Carl Flores and Leslie Mize, as well as his cousin, Christopher Diaz, were at one time or another all members of the Eastside.
His father, Paul Martinez (Ruben Mize uses his mother’s last name), then 46 years old, was arrested the morning of Gator Roll, charged with threatening a witness at his son’s preliminary hearing in the Carachure murder case. Though he eventually pled no contest and received probation and time served, his past criminal record impressed Judge Brian Hill. Martinez has had two stints in prison and has been convicted of theft at least five times, the most recent in 2001 for stealing two bottles of tequila. His defense was that he needed the alcohol because he was a heroin addict who wasn’t using. More recently, he was arrested during a probation search of his home, where drugs suspected to be heroin and materials connected to a San Diego street gang were allegedly found. He is still in jail awaiting trial.
Mize’s oldest brother, Anthony, called “Bullet,” was in Folsom State Prison at the time of Gator Roll, where he was still serving a sentence. He has since died, apparently of natural causes, on August 5, 2010, at the age of 26. Ruben’s other brother, Robert, 23 years old and known as “Lil Bullet,” was in Santa Barbara jail facing an accessory to murder charge in the Carachure case, the same murder that Mize is accused of committing. Robert, who was the stabbing victim at the Rusty’s Pizza knife fight, is also charged with attempting to murder the man he believed attacked him. As a result of Operation Gator Roll, Robert was one of the 19 men charged under the RICO Act, and he was also charged federally with conspiracy to distribute cocaine, criminal forfeiture, and the sale of a firearm to a prohibited person. He now faces up to 40 years in a federal prison.
Uncle Carl Flores was also in S.B. jail on the same attempted murder charge as Robert. He allegedly bought an illegal stun gun with the intention to incapacitate the supposed Rusty’s Pizza stabber in order to more easily kill him. Flores, too, is one of the 19 men now charged under the RICO Act.
Mize’s cousin Diaz was, in his own way, central to Operation Gator Roll: He was the taskforce’s principal informant. Now, after many dangerous years of working with police, he, his girlfriend, and their child have been put in the witness protection program and moved out of Santa Barbara and into a new life.
Chiko Loko Comes of Age
Ruben Mize, who was born in Santa Barbara in 1991, first came to the attention of the law when he was nine years old and ran into Detective Gary Siegel on the street. Since then, there have been more than 30 police reports on him, the first being a month after he turned 12, when he allegedly assaulted a grown man he thought was “mad-dogging” him. The reports went on to include the theft of a vehicle with his brother Robert and another car pursuit in which he allegedly threw a gun out the window. Finally, he was arrested in 2008 for the Carachure murder, which occurred when he was 15 years old. His parents could not control him. Family members have reported that Mize would sneak out the window every time his parents tried to ground him. A teacher described him as cunning and a boy who always “knew what he was doing.”
Now 18, Mize looks like a grown man, hardened beyond his years. Tall, muscular, and sneering, Mize, who has tattoos all over his face and body, has gained a street reputation, not only for his growing criminal record, but for being an accomplished gangster rapper. “You know me, Dog, I could care less what happens,” Mize, known within the gang as “Chiko Loko”, wrote from jail in a letter recently. “This is the life I chose to live.”
A Santa Barbara jury was recently deadlocked on whether Mize, along with three other defendants, committed first-degree murder in the death of Carachure, though jurors said a second-degree murder conviction was almost certain had they been allowed to consider it. He was, however, convicted of an attempted murder in a different case, and now faces 15 years to life in prison. The prosecution is now planning to retry Mize for Carachure’s death.
It was the investigation into Carachure’s murder that led to the formation of Operation Gator Roll. In the weeks following the murder, “witnesses were not crawling out of the woodwork to help,” said Chief Sanchez. But then in walked Christopher Diaz.
The Wire and Other Friends of the Law
Diaz, a big man with a jolly laugh, had been an Eastside gang member since the late 1990s and had a prior conviction for possessing a weapon. He was also a cousin to Mize and the Martinez brothers. But he was getting tired of gang life. “I was 22, 23, kickin’ it at a park with 15-year-olds,” he testified during Mize’s murder trial. “It was time to grow up.” One day in 2007, he was hanging with Mize and Mize’s father, Paul Martinez, and another Eastsider, Bryan Medinilla, talking about the recent Carachure killing. According to Diaz, Mize described how he had “stuck Carachure in the neck.” Some time later, Medinilla, who became a codefendant in the case, allegedly told Diaz that he had stabbed 16-year-old Carachure in the stomach.
“If that had been my son, I wish someone would’ve come forward,” Diaz said about his decision to go to Det. Siegel and to begin cooperating with police. It was Diaz’s idea to wear a wire because, as a seasoned criminal and longtime gang member, he was afraid no one would believe him. Several months later, on April 1, 2008, he and Mize were driving along San Pascual Street when Mize began describing the killing of “Nemo” Carachure. “That’s where we parked when we stuck Nemo,” Mize was recorded saying on tape. “The thing that helped us out,” he went on, was that the victim was hit in the head and couldn’t get up. Carachure’s “arms were on the ground like he passed out,” Mize said, and that’s when he gave him the kill shot in the throat. Later in the tape, Mize also admitted to stabbing another Westsider several months later, leaving that victim for dead.
While the recording was critical evidence against Mize, Diaz recorded other Eastsiders talking about other crimes, as well. “Anywhere I went with a gang member, I had a recording,” he said. It was Diaz who was with Mize’s uncle Flores when he was buying the stun gun. Diaz testified in the preliminary hearing of that case.
Flipping Like Dolphins
Operation Gator Roll might never have been such a success without Diaz and his gutsy wearing of a wire. But since then, many other gangsters, now facing serious charges, are flipping like dolphins. Robert Martinez, for instance, who was facing the prospect of life in prison, has now testified against his brother Mize and other Eastside gang members in exchange for a plea deal. “I could get beat up, I could get stabbed, I could possibly get killed,” Martinez told the jury, but he no longer considers himself a member of the gang.
“In my experience,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Aveis, no stranger to prosecuting serious gang crime, “[gangsters] only care about their own survival. Absent the federal charges, I’m confident Robert Martinez would never have come forward to testify against his brother.” At least 12 really good arrests were first “linked by a kernel of information that we were able to pursue,” according to police spokesperson Lieutenant Paul McCaffrey. One gang member helped crack the case of a June 2007 attack by leading police to Ricardo Nava, also accused in the Carachure murder. He, along with Eastsiders Omar Ramos and Erick Roman, eventually pled guilty to attempted murder with a gang enhancement and all received prison sentences of at least 17 years. The convictions are directly connected to the Carachure homicide and Operation Gator Roll, as was the discovery of an illegal weapons operation that was outfitting gang members with knives and stun guns, and the solving of the 2007 attack on a Westsider who suffered at least 30 stab wounds (Mize was allegedly involved in that attack). In all, 160-plus arrests would be made in connection with Gator Roll. “It really is a gift that keeps on giving,” said Hilary Dozer, the prosecutor in the DA’s South County office, recently named administrator of the gang unit.
Promises and False Hopes
It’s just another Monday morning in Judge George Wu’s courtroom on the second floor of the historic federal building on Spring Street in downtown Los Angeles. But for the 28 defendants from Santa Barbara who have made their way through Wu’s court in recent months, the feeling is anything but familiar. No more familiar bailiffs, no more familiar lawyers, no more familiar sentences, no more red tile roofs. Federal convictions are not eligible for parole, and often federal prisoners are sent out of state. Terms of probation are stricter, and penalties for violating probation are severe.
On this particular day in May, two indicted defendants from Operation Gator Roll are in court. One defendant, Edwin Bay, has his case continued to another day. He eventually pled to an illegal reentry immigration charge, and, after serving time, will be deported. The other defendant, Ivan Quezada, is being sentenced for attacking a man with a baseball bat because he thought the victim was not from the Eastside. Though he had already served two years for the crime in a state prison, he was being sentenced on federal charges for the same offense. Quezada has a rap sheet dating back to a 2001 battery for which he was placed in boot camp. He escaped in 2002 from Juvenile Hall, and over several years received several other battery charges until he was arrested for the baseball-bat assault. Quezada is now a 24-year-old and the father of a daughter who was born while he was in federal custody. She is in the courtroom. His lawyer explains that Quezada has taken classes at S.B. City College and wants to participate in a tattoo removal program. Judge Wu sentences him 13 months, or the time he has been in custody since his Gator Roll arrest.
Other Gator Roll defendants are claiming that the experience in federal prison has given them a chance to reform, such as Joshua Rodriquez, who wrote to the judge that he planned to move to Oregon with a family member to get away from the Eastside.
Miguel Parra, now serving 23 months for conspiracy to distribute cocaine, said his time behind bars has given him a chance to grow up after a childhood with his father in prison, his mother working three jobs, and him turning to alcohol and drugs: “My life was drastically changed the first weeks of October 2008 … My incarceration gives me an opportunity to get away from my old environment, and dead-end lifestyle that I entered under false hopes and promises.”
Several defense attorneys here in town, however, questioned the need for Gator Roll. “You wonder if a Santa Barbara street gang is a RICO situation,” one attorney said. “Federal laws are pretty intense stuff.” Another said that arresting Mize alone probably did more to lower the violent crime rate in Santa Barbara than Gator Roll ever did.
But statistics from the DA’s office indicate that while gang-related cases have gone up countywide from 2005 to 2009, the city’s have gone down from the high of 112 in 2007 to 76 in 2009. A review by this paper of serious gang-related assaults reported by the police department shows gang crimes have decreased dramatically since the bust. Thus far in 2010, there have only been two alleged gang-related stabbings. The most recent July 4 and Fiesta holidays, often hot times for gang violence, were quiet. “It almost shut down certain types of gang violence,” said Dozer.
Up and Down the Gang Chain
But that’s not to say all incidents of gang activity have vanished. Gang graffiti and gatherings of gang “types” still worry neighbors. For example, in April 2009, the Franklin Center Medical Clinic was placed on lockdown for roughly 40 minutes because 20 or so suspected Eastside gang members had gathered outside and begun throwing hand signs at some people inside associated with a Westside gang. Police arrested four individuals, including an 18-year-old, who, now 19, is sitting in state prison. Joaquin Perez, or “Silent,” had been arrested on witness intimidation charges as part of Gator Roll, and was out on bail at the time of the Franklin Center incident. In June, he was sentenced to three years in state prison, with two strikes against him when he gets out. He eventually pled no contest to a battery of a police officer charge in the Franklin Center incident, as well.
The word on the street is that some of those who did time in federal prison as a result of Gator Roll have been strutting around, talking about how tough they are. A gangster rap song was produced by Eastsiders that brags about their federal indictments. A local school teacher who has taught several gang members said at first many were happy when Gator Roll happened, but that it didn’t take long for gang members, especially the young ones, to start making noise again. “They were right back at it a few months later,” he said. Gator Roll, by taking out a lot of the leaders, created new opportunities for the younger kids to step up. “I don’t think it has dissuaded anyone.”
Nearly everyone, law enforcement included, agrees that prosecution is but one tool in the bag to rid the streets of gangs and keep the community safe. Matt Sanchez, who works closely with at-risk youth and gang members, said that he himself needed a stint in prison to learn his lesson and turn his life around. “I knew I had to be locked up,” he said. Indeed, there are plenty of programs and services attempting to reach at-risk youth. Newly elected DA Joyce Dudley has made youth violence a priority and pledged to get her office — first and foremost tasked with prosecuting crime — out in the community, supporting programs trying to stop kids from joining gangs in the first place. Jacqueline Inda, who works with both gang members and their families, said there needs to be an intensive support system, but that now there is little to help families except law enforcement and suppression. Neighborhood activist Ken Rivas asked, “Is there a noticeable change from Gator Roll? … My answer would be yes and no … Absent major violence, it seems to be business as usual.”