SAN BERNARDINO, Calif.>> Hundreds of law enforcement officers swept across seven Southern California counties on Thursday targeting members and leaders of the Vagos motorcycle club, some of whom are accused of crimes including rape and solicitation of murder.
The early morning raids netted at least 12 arrests, drugs and more than 300 weapons, authorities said. Twenty-five others were already arrested, and more than 40 pounds of cocaine and eight pounds of methamphetamine were seized along with a rocket launcher.
Authorities said some members of the gang, which was founded in the 1960s and has about 500 members worldwide, were involved in a large-scale drug distribution ring. Members would threaten, intimidate or use violence to protect their interests, they said.
"Often times, Vagos members were armed and they don’t hesitate to use their weapons," said David King, a senior special agent in charge with the California Department of Justice, the agency that led the 18-month investigation.
Most recently, a Vagos member from Northern California was arrested in connection with the Sept. 23 slaying of Jeffrey "Jethro" Pettigrew, president of the San Jose chapter of the rival Hells Angels, during a shootout at a Nevada casino. Two Vagos members also were wounded in the melee, and a third was shot in the stomach the next morning by a gunman in a passing car.
Forty to 50 state indictments were expected as a result of the investigation dubbed "Operation Simple Green." Among the crimes authorities uncovered are a solicitation for murder they said they couldn’t disclose details about, as well as the rape of a woman by four Vagos members at a Los Alamitos bar in March.
No arrests have been made in either case, but authorities were asking for the public’s help in identifying the rape victim.
"We feel like she’s been threatened, and that’s the reason why she hasn’t come forward," King said.
The raids were the latest effort to dismantle what officials have labeled an outlaw gang, whose patch includes the Norse god of mischief Loki. Vagos is a Spanish name that means "traveling gypsy" or "a street-wise person that’s always up to something." It also has chapters in Australia, Canada and Nicaragua.
Vagos leaders in the past have said their group is a social club, not a criminal enterprise, and have complained of being repeatedly targeted by law enforcement.
Authorities served 52 search warrants on Thursday at locations stretching from Santa Barbara to Imperial counties. Among those arrested was Andrew Lozano, 35, of Fontana, who was led out of his one-story home wearing only a towel when agents busted down his door.
Authorities combed through a large lot behind the home, essentially a junkyard filled with construction equipment, truck trailers and a pontoon boat. A dummy whose face was covered with a black hood and a noose around its neck hung from a eucalyptus tree. A Harley Davidson emblazoned with flames painted green — the Vagos’ chosen color — was parked nearby.
Lozano was charged with possession of body armor with a gang enhancement. If convicted, he faces up to three years in prison.
Later at a command center, law enforcement agents met up to tally the day’s results. At one point, two vehicles carrying about 100 rifles and other weapons were unloaded to be placed into evidence. All the guns were found at one house in Alhambra, authorities said.
Five years ago, federal, state and local authorities conducted a similar operation and arrested more than two dozen Vagos members, including seven chapter presidents. In September 2004, a state investigation involving the gang led to the arrests of 26 people and the seizure of more than $125,000 in cash, drugs and guns.
In October 1998, a two-year undercover investigation of the gang resulted in the arrests of more than a dozen people for alleged kidnapping, drug and weapons crimes.
"The outlaw motorcycle gangs our agents targeted today are one example of the need for California to continue our coordinated and smart approach to targeting gangs committing serious, violent crimes," Harris said.
The gang was initially suspected in attacks on Hemet police last year that included a gas line rigged to explode at a gang task force building. Two men not associated with the Vagos were later arrested, and Riverside County settled a lawsuit in August with the gang over that case.