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Saturday, 11 April 2009

West Drive Locos gang is very heavy into murder


West Drive Locos, now with about 60 members, takes its name from a main north-south street through a tough neighborhood in the middle of the city.Police say the gang's reputed founder, Emilio Avalos, came to the desert from the San Fernando Valley shortly before the gang's founding.“He brought some of the background and knowledge of the L.A. gangs he knew out there to form the gang as we know it today,” Monis said.Avalos, 31, is currently jailed awaiting a May murder trial for the Dec. 19, 2001, drive-by slaying of Marine Cpl. Henry Lozano, 20, in Desert Hot Springs. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.Lozano was dating Avalos' ex-girlfriend. As Lozano left his girlfriend's home on Third Street, Avalos was lying in wait in a car at the corner, police say. As Lozano turned to head north on Palm Drive, slowing for a drainage channel in an intersection, Avalos allegedly pulled alongside Lozano's Ford Focus and riddled it with gunfire.The Marine's death shocked and outraged the community. Though Avalos was suspected, police were unable to pin the case to him.At the urging of Lozano's parents, then county deputy district attorney Rod Pacheco pushed to reopen the Lozano murder case in 2006, which led to the arrest of Avalos.
“The West Drive Locos gang is very heavy into murder,” said Pacheco, who took office as district attorney in 2007.“They're very, very dangerous. That's a gang we talked about going after from the beginning.”But they're not alone.Police say Desert Hot Springs and the surrounding area is now home to at least six gangs. And the conflicts and rivalries between them have left city residents in the crossfire.Desert Hot Springs for years has had among the highest per capita violent crime rates for cities of under 100,000 population in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, according to statistics kept by the FBI.Auto thefts in Desert Hot Springs were up 13.6 percent in 2007 compared to 2006.“Auto theft and dope-dealing are two of the primary things gangs do to sustain themselves,” Police Chief Patrick Williams said.“We have to turn a corner, and that's through getting these violent crooks off the street.”By the fall of 2007, West Drive Locos gang members were brazenly making their presence known in a city neighborhood's centerpiece.Park becomes a base for crimeGuy J. Tedesco park opened with fanfare and a rededication ceremony on Sept. 22, 2007. Desert Hot Springs city officials had put $3 million into renovations at the park, bordered by east and west Arroyo Drive.The park fast became a popular spot for kids to bicycle, skateboard and play basketball; for parents to barbecue as their smaller children played on the new playground equipment.West Drive Locos members also discovered the sparkling new park. Within weeks it became the the gang's “corporate headquarters, for all intents and purposes,” Daniels said.The gang spray-painted its graffiti on the park's sign, forcing city officials to spend days scrubbing it away.
“That pissed me off,” Daniels said.Worse problems were soon to come.
On Nov. 17, 2007, a teenager jumped out of a car on Flora Avenue west of the park. He ran to the park's edge, a semi-automatic pistol in hand.He fired 13 rounds at seven people seated at a picnic table, then ran back to the car, which sped away.One intended victim was unharmed. He would tell police nothing. Another victim, likely shot, also left the scene. Police found a blood trail, nothing more.Monis, who served as a Desert Hot Springs police officer in the 1990s, said he wasn't surprised that the shooting victims were uncooperative.“If you're an active gang member and you're ratting on someone — even if it's a rival gang member — it's looked upon as you being a snitch,” he said. “And in the gang world, once you have a snitch label on you, you're in trouble.”It is a classic example of how gang violence escalates.
A drive-by shooting elevates the shooter's status within his gang, and the gang's reputation among the gang community. And the victims, individually and as a gang, are “punked,” having their status decreased, said Chuck Cervello, a senior D.A. investigator. He was the lead case agent and gang expert for Team DHS.
“Now you not only have to get even with that gang; you actually want to get one up on them,” Cervello said. “That's why a lot of times the violence tends to increase.“The whole reason why they do what they do is for this misled perspective of respect. They want to earn respect, and in their world, that's how they get it.”The city's multimillion-dollar Tedesco Park investment in a struggling neighborhood was intended to bring the community together and provide a place for positive activities.Within weeks it had instead become a base for crime, intimidation and terror.“It scares me to death to have this go on right outside our front door,” said Flora Avenue resident Elizabeth Cunningham the day after the 2007 park shooting. Cunningham lives fewer than 100 yards from Tedesco Park with her three children.
Gang members surrounded the house. Inside they expected to find a rival gang's drugs and money.They shot their way in.More than 30 shots were fired, police later determined, both inside and outside the house in a neighborhood between Ironwood Drive and Two Bunch Palms Trail.Blood spattered the walls and pooled on the floor, but police found no one inside.The violent scene unfolded at 4:30p.m. in the middle of a residential neighborhood in the fall of 2007. No one — not a single neighbor — called 911.Desert Hot Springs City Manager Rick Daniels, on the job for about six weeks, said that's when he realized the pervasiveness of the gang problem in his community, and how citizens were gripped with fear.“The people are afraid to call the cops; they're afraid to put a stop to this,” he said. “And there are bullets flying around in residential neighborhoods.”The West Drive Locos street gang had a three-year head start on police in Desert Hot Springs. The gang formed in 1994; the city police force in 1997.The great economy and affordable housing that brought a population boom to the Coachella Valley in the 1990s also brought criminal street gangs.“The Coachella Valley gang scene is very heavily influenced by the entire L.A. area,” said Ryan Monis, a senior investigator with the Riverside County District Attorney's Office and part of Team DHS, the investigators and prosecutors who carried out the eight-month gang mission.
“As people moved out here because of the housing prices compared to Los Angeles and Orange County, obviously you bring some of that (gang) element with you,” he said.Desert Hot Springs, with the valley's lowest rents, pervasive unemployment and poverty, was fertile ground for gangs to flourish.The West Drive Locos, now with about 60 members, takes its name from a main north-south street through a tough neighborhood in the middle of the city.Police say the gang's reputed founder, Emilio Avalos, came to the desert from the San Fernando Valley shortly before the gang's founding.
“He brought some of the background and knowledge of the L.A. gangs he knew out there to form the gang as we know it today,” Monis said.
Avalos, 31, is currently jailed awaiting a May murder trial for the Dec. 19, 2001, drive-by slaying of Marine Cpl. Henry Lozano, 20, in Desert Hot Springs. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.Lozano was dating Avalos' ex-girlfriend. As Lozano left his girlfriend's home on Third Street, Avalos was lying in wait in a car at the corner, police say. As Lozano turned to head north on Palm Drive, slowing for a drainage channel in an intersection, Avalos allegedly pulled alongside Lozano's Ford Focus and riddled it with gunfire.The Marine's death shocked and outraged the community. Though Avalos was suspected, police were unable to pin the case to him.At the urging of Lozano's parents, then county deputy district attorney Rod Pacheco pushed to reopen the Lozano murder case in 2006, which led to the arrest of Avalos.“The West Drive Locos gang is very heavy into murder,” said Pacheco, who took office as district attorney in 2007.“They're very, very dangerous. That's a gang we talked about going after from the beginning.”But they're not alone.Police say Desert Hot Springs and the surrounding area is now home to at least six gangs. And the conflicts and rivalries between them have left city residents in the crossfire.Desert Hot Springs for years has had among the highest per capita violent crime rates for cities of under 100,000 population in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, according to statistics kept by the FBI.Auto thefts in Desert Hot Springs were up 13.6 percent in 2007 compared to 2006.“Auto theft and dope-dealing are two of the primary things gangs do to sustain themselves,” Police Chief Patrick Williams said.“We have to turn a corner, and that's through getting these violent crooks off the street.”By the fall of 2007, West Drive Locos gang members were brazenly making their presence known in a city neighborhood's centerpiece.Park becomes a base for crime.Guy J. Tedesco park opened with fanfare and a rededication ceremony on Sept. 22, 2007. Desert Hot Springs city officials had put $3 million into renovations at the park, bordered by east and west Arroyo Drive.
The park fast became a popular spot for kids to bicycle, skateboard and play basketball; for parents to barbecue as their smaller children played on the new playground equipment.West Drive Locos members also discovered the sparkling new park. Within weeks it became the the gang's “corporate headquarters, for all intents and purposes,” Daniels saidThe gang spray-painted its graffiti on the park's sign, forcing city officials to spend days scrubbing it away.
“That pissed me off,” Daniels said.Worse problems were soon to come.
On Nov. 17, 2007, a teenager jumped out of a car on Flora Avenue west of the park. He ran to the park's edge, a semi-automatic pistol in hand.He fired 13 rounds at seven people seated at a picnic table, then ran back to the car, which sped away.One intended victim was unharmed. He would tell police nothing. Another victim, likely shot, also left the scene. Police found a blood trail, nothing more.Monis, who served as a Desert Hot Springs police officer in the 1990s, said he wasn't surprised that the shooting victims were uncooperative.“If you're an active gang member and you're ratting on someone — even if it's a rival gang member — it's looked upon as you being a snitch,” he said. “And in the gang world, once you have a snitch label on you, you're in trouble.”It is a classic example of how gang violence escalates.A drive-by shooting elevates the shooter's status within his gang, and the gang's reputation among the gang community. And the victims, individually and as a gang, are “punked,” having their status decreased, said Chuck Cervello, a senior D.A. investigator. He was the lead case agent and gang expert for Team DHS.
“Now you not only have to get even with that gang; you actually want to get one up on them,” Cervello said. “That's why a lot of times the violence tends to increase.“The whole reason why they do what they do is for this misled perspective of respect. They want to earn respect, and in their world, that's how they get it.”
The city's multimillion-dollar Tedesco Park investment in a struggling neighborhood was intended to bring the community together and provide a place for positive activities.Within weeks it had instead become a base for crime, intimidation and terror.“It scares me to death to have this go on right outside our front door,” said Flora Avenue resident Elizabeth Cunningham the day after the 2007 park shooting. Cunningham lives fewer than 100 yards from Tedesco Park with her three children.A recent study showed Desert Hot Springs needed 38 to 42 officers to effectively police the city. Going into 2008, the police department had 19 able bodies.As gang violence and crime escalated, officials began squeezing the budget to increase police staffing.Williams also worked on collaborative initiatives with other agencies, including county gang and drug task forces and having the California Highway Patrol increase traffic patrols.The efforts took the number of police patrol vehicles on the streets in the city to an all-time high.That didn't sit well with the West Drive Locos.On the night of May 26, a Desert Hot Springs police officer followed a BMW along Cactus Drive, believing a wanted gang member was inside.According to police, near First Street the car slowed. Alleged West Drive member Francisco “Poncho” Salcido got out and fired on the officer as the car sped away.The officer fired back, but neither was hit.Salcido escaped, but was arrested two days later following a police manhunt.Police at the time continued the search for another alleged West Drive member wanted in another shooting incident, Anthony “Clumsy” Paez.Two days after Salcido's arrest, officers in a California Highway Patrol vehicle on May 30 on Cactus Drive spotted a car with three young men inside, none wearing their seatbelts. The officers at the time didn't know that one of the occupants was Paez.The CHP officers followed the car as its path became more erratic. As the gang members tried to speed away into the night, the officers pursued.Two passengers in the car leaned out the windows with shotguns and fired on the CHP officers, who returned fire.One of the car's occupants, Alexis Melendrez-Acosta, 18, of Desert Hot Springs was shot in the head during the exchange of gunfire. He was pronounced dead at Desert Regional Medical Center the next day.
Paez and a 15-year-old boy ran from the car into a house on Via El Rancho, just south of the city.The gang members continued to trade gunfire with police from the home. The standoff ended hours later, about 4 a.m., when the pair gave up after tear gas was fired into the building.Paez was treated for multiple gunshot wounds. He remains jailed awaiting trial for attempted murder of a peace officer, felony grand theft auto and felony evading police.The juvenile, Edgar Antonio Flores, now 16, is being tried as an adult on two counts of attempted murder.Within a one-week period, West Drive Locos gang members had been in three gun battles with police.“It was extremely disconcerting,” Mayor Yvonne Parks said.
“Gangs were getting out of control. They were getting arrogant. It was in-your-face gang activity.“There was a realization something had to be done.”She wasn't alone.“When the shootings started happening on the officers,” Daniels said, “that's when I thought, ‘This has just escalated to where no one is safe.'”

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