Friday, May 14, 2004

HIGH DESERT GANGSTERS

If you’ve been following the local crime news lately, you’ve probably noticed that Oxnard and the Antelope Valley are experiencing a big spike in gang-related crimes, shootings and murders. Oxnard LE is alarmed enough by the spike that the DA wants to file a gang injunction against the COLONIA CHIQUES, an Oxnard gang. This is a homegrown neighborhood that’s been around for years.

Further inland in the Antelope Valley, there’s an interesting development taking place. A 19-year-old, AARON MATHEU, just pleaded no contest to an attempt murder charge. He was already serving 25 to life on a carjacking beef and the nine years will be served concurrently. One of his crimies, JUAN RODRIGUEZ, was just hit with an attempt murder filing for a drive-by shooting.

BYRON MATHEU, older brother to AARON, is currently at large but wanted for allegedly committing a murder in FEBRUARY.

These three suspects wouldn’t merit a mention except that they’re all members of VNE (VARRIO NEUVO ESTRADA), a really deep EAST LA GANG that goes back generations. Gang fans will probably remember that ERNIE "CHUCO" CASTRO came out of VNE. And VNE has been trying to live that down since 1995 when CASTRO became INFORMANT numero uno in the first of three big FEDERAL RICO cases. CASTRO is living under an assumed identity in parts unknown.

If you’re reading this from out of town, the geography means nothing to you. Locals, however, know that the ANTELOPE VALLEY is way out there in the high desert. It’s the home of the B2 bomber, Edwards Air Force Base and a lot of aerospace contractors. Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier over the Valley in 1947. So what are homies who claim VNE doing way out there in the puckerbrush far from their ELA homeland? For that matter, you can also ask what are Crips, Bloods, El Sereno, Cuatro Flats, Avenues and other traditional big city gangs doing out there? The answer seems to be SECTION 8 housing.

For those who aren’t familiar with Section 8 housing, this is a government program where poor families pay a maximum of 30% of their household income for rent and the government covers the rest.

What’s happening with the gang spike in the Antelope Valley is a result of the end of the Cold War. During the height of defense spending, the Antelope Valley was the fastest growing community in the country. The influx of highly paid engineers and technicians working on Pentagon-financed galactic hot rods created a demand for upscale housing which the private sector was all too ready to provide. Two story tract housing with three car garages went up faster than you can say "Joint Strike Fighter."

Just when the housing market reached the saturation point, the Soviet Union took the air out of the bubble and decided to conveniently implode. Great news for the Free World. Bad news for the defense business and its employees.

Mass lay offs in the Valley were quickly followed by an exodus of engineers and space techs and that left a lot of really nice houses suddenly empty. Developers walked away from half finished communities, a lot of them still in the framing stage. What was left were brand new, centrally air-conditioned ghost towns.

In an effort to get out from under, developers went looking for buyers or renters. In steps the government with Section 8 vouchers. Anybody in the County who qualified for Section 8 was eligible to move to the recently vacated ghost towns. While they weren’t getting market value, developers were happy to have any kind of income.

If you’re a mother with six kids living in a two bedroom rat hole in Long Beach, East LA, South Central or Pacoima, the idea of 2000 square feet, brand new everything, front and back yards and a three car garage sounds like paradise. And it’s especially tempting if you can take your kids out of a risky, gang-oriented environment. The poor moved out by the hundreds and then the thousands.

But as history has shown, you can take the kid out of the neighborhood, but you often can’t take the neighborhood out of the kid. Unfortunately, along with the furniture and Nintendo games, the gang culture was also packed into the U-Hauls and car trunks. The tattoos and attitudes don’t fall away when you cross the LA City line. Mom wanted a fresh start someplace better, but the kids brought it all with them.

From a purely sociological point of view, an interesting dynamic is taking place amidst the cactus and Russian Thistle of the AV. Old rivalries haven’t been transplanted. At least not yet. You’ve got Bloods and Crips living in a state of d├ętente on the same block. Same thing with the Hispanic gangs. Some LEOs I’ve spoken to think that the reason old rivalries aren’t resurrected is that gangs lack the critical mass of the old hoods. The individuals are too scattered to really form an active neighborhood. And a lot of the homies are still fairly young and inexperienced. For instance, the carjacking that sent AARON MATHEU to jail for 25 to life was a training mission conducted under the tutelage of MARIO GARCIA, a VNE veterano.

The other interesting phenomenon is that Valley drug dealers have yet to feel the sting of the EME’s tax collectors. One LEO told me the Valley is still a 100% tax-free zone and in terms of drug dealing, it’s a Wild West of entrepreneurs who work independently and outside the long reach of the Big Homies and shot callers from the old neighborhood. This may change in time, but for now, it’s every pusher for himself. A DA told me he recently filed on a single mother of six and an ELA transplant, for dealing meth out of her kitchen. She employed runners to go out and solicit and the customers would come to the house to buy. She didn’t pay taxes to anybody. An operation of this size anywhere in East LA would certainly draw the attention of the Homies and you can bet your last rock she would we kicking up or get put out of business.

Local LE is concerned that over time, the critical mass will be reached. Right now, LE is seeing active recruitment. The gangs are in the building stage. Veteranos are checking out the local talent, building a foundation out of the best from the farm team and probably in time, they’ll ramp up to start claiming neighborhoods. No one can tell, of course, if old allegiances hold or new neighborhoods develop their own identity. We’ll know first from the tags. If we start seeing things like VNE-AV (VARRIO NEUVO ESTRADA – ANTELOPE VALLEY) or VNE-PD (VARRIO NUEVO ESTRADA-PALMDALE) then we’ll have the start of a trans-county structure. If the new gangsters reject the old neighborhoods and their roots then there may be trouble in the colonies. In either case, the Antelope Valley will definitely experience some interesting times in the next decade.

Monday, May 10, 2004

WHAT IS BALLISTICS EVIDENCE?
I got some emails regarding ballistics evidence in reponse to my previous blog on the LAT's story about the LAPD crime lab. One of the readers wanted to know if gun "fingerprinting" that he'd read about was as unique as human fingerprints. Another asked a more basic question about what exactly a crime tech does to identify a shell casing or spent projectile.

While a complete answer could fill a book, I'll address both as briefly as possible.

First off, a loaded round consists of four components: the projectile, the shell casing, the powder charge and the primer that ignites the powder. The projectile is found either in the victim, buried in a car, wall or whattever, and the powder is completely consumed in firing. What's left for analysis is the casing and the primer. The projectile is a separate discussion I'll leave for another time. Right now we're talking about shell casing analysis.

There are two basics types of handguns. Semi-autos and revolvers. When a semi-auto is fired, the slide ejects the spent round (shell casing) and automatically feeds a fresh round into the chamber. A revolver on the other hand, retains the spent shell casing in the cylinder. If a revolver is fired at a crime scene, chances are, there will be no spent shell casings on the ground. That is, unless it was a long firefight and the combatant(s) shot dry and then reloaded. This is highly unusual.

Semi-autos are used way more frequently and the spent shell casings are what's under all those paper tents you see on TV at crime scenes.

When a round is fired, the shell casing is subjected to a number of forces that leave scratch marks on its surface. The shell casing is generally made of brass, a material that's softer than the steel of the gun. Because it's softer, it's imprinted with the tool marks and other marks unique to the gun. Think of it as pushing modeling clay into a mold and lifting out the clay. What you have on the clay is the imprint of the mold.

After firing, the shell casing has the firing pin mark on the primer, the mark of the gun's extractor on the rim of the shell casing, scratch marks from the chamber of the gun and imprints of the gun's breechface on the base of the shell casing. These imprints and scratches are the result of the tool marks put on the gun during the manufacturing process. An analyst can determine with a high degree of accuracy if shell casings from different crimes all came from the same gun. The one caveat is that the gun has not been altered between crimes.

Unless you're dealing with a fairly sophisticated criminal, guns are rarely altered. However, it's not unheard of. I've sat in enough court trials where informants have admitted to receiving guns used in a crime and altered them before the next use.

How is that done? It's not that hard. The firing pin and extractor can be easily replaced. Even though these new parts are the same brand as the original, the tool marks are probably different enough to change the "fingerprint" of the firing pin and extractor. As to the chamber, which is part of the barrel, that too can be replaced or altered. Like the chamber, the breechface can also be altered with nothing more sophisticated that sandpaper and elbow grease. If you want to get fancy, you can by a $40 Dremel tool and a polishing stone attachment and completely change the "fingerprint" of the breechface.

So to answer the two readers, shell casings can be analyzed and traced back to a specific gun thanks to the toolmarks. If, that is, the gun hasn't been altered as I outlined. And this speaks directly to the second question about uniqueness of gun "prints." Gun fingerprints, unlike human prints, can change either through use of the gun (all that rubbing and pressure will in time have an effect on the toolmarks) or deliberately altered.

And that leads to my personal opinion on the proposed nationwide "printing" of all guns prior to sale. Lawmakers wanted to create a nationwide database of gun prints cross-referenced with the serial number of the gun and the name of the purchaser. It's ultimately an exercise that can be rendered pointless by the use of sandpaper and/or replacement parts. Gun prints are not permanent and that whole database will amount to nothing more than an elaborate and expensive collection of useless scratches.