“The game is afoot!”
Solving gang crimes like Sherlock Holmes with little physical evidence and even scarcer witnesses was always challenging and stimulating to me, but it was the hunt and the chase once the suspects were identified that was the most rewarding. Most gang members run to where they feel safe and familiar. In Los Angeles, that usually meant just a few miles from their gang neighborhoods.
That doesn’t mean it is easy. Los Angeles County is a big place and occasionally suspects run further away. Many are apt to flee across the border to Mexico. However, because they are L.A. gangsters and have little in common with the people and culture of Mexico, they soon return to the neighborhood. The most difficult and dangerous quarry changes his whole lifestyle, and although they may be nearby, only the best hunters can track them down.
Early in my career, I was very fortunate to be assigned as the sergeant and supervisor of an outstanding team of gang Detectives in the East Los Angeles Operation Safe Streets gang unit. My senior detective was Manny Madrid, Herman Trevizo was my solid second, Gil Flores was my Mexican kung fu fighter, the two brothers Biehn (Gerry and Norm) were well respected by peers and gangs alike, and the excellent gang cop Sammy Sanders was the new guy in the unit.
With the tremendous amount of gang activity in the East Los Angeles Station area we were all (including me) carrying heavy case loads. During this time a series of fast-food restaurant and bank robberies were being committed by a pair of unknown suspects wearing ski masks.
The detectives working ELA and the surrounding jurisdiction were stumped. The FBI circulated numerous photos captured during these robberies by surveillance cameras, but the masked suspects remained unidentified. The robberies did not appear to be the work of local gang members because the suspects were too well dressed in very un-gang like clothing, except for their ski-masks. In one clear photograph one suspect was making an obscene gesture with his finger at the camera.
One day three very good looking young Hispanic women walked into the ELA Detective Office with a story to tell. The three ladies had been shopping at the ELA Commerce Shopping Center and had just walked out and got into their parked car in the parking lot when their attention was drawn to two well-dressed Hispanic “hunks” walking past their car. As they watched the men and made comments to each other about how good they looked, the two men slipped ski-masks over their heads and entered the Commerce Bank of America. A few moments later they came running out with guns in hand before fleeing in a car that had been parked near the witnesses. The three women had seen the suspects very well before and after they were masked. They were afraid but willing to try to help.
The courageous women were individually shown the ELA mug books and they each identified El Hoyo (The Hole) Maravilla gang members Vincent and Luis Arias as the men who robbed the bank. Although both brothers were admitted gang members, they chose to dress more like hip college students rather than the typical Hispanic “Cholos” of El Hoyo.
Vincent, who was 25, had actually attended ELA Community College for a short time. Luis was only 19 and his brother’s constant sidekick. They were both known to be “ladies men” and were very conscious of their physical appearance. They worked out regularly to maintain that masculine “buffed” look and were well groomed and clean shaven.
Because the suspects had been identified as El Hoyo gang members, poor Sammy Sanders inherited the case, or should I say the 20 or so cases. Although he was the least experienced gang detective in my team, he would turn out to be exactly the right man for the job. The game was afoot!
Gang informants told us that the Arias brothers lived with an elderly grandmother and had not been hanging out with the El Hoyo homeboys lately. Someone said they had come into some money recently, but the brothers had always dressed and acted like they had money as long as anyone could remember.
We began by hitting the grandmother’s house and then one by one the close associates of the Arias brothers; Sputnik, Oso, Babe, Boo Boo, and Mr. Freezy all wound up in custody. Mr. Freezy was an ex-police explorer who smoked too much PCP and couldn’t decide which side he wanted to be on. We reminded Arias’ homeboys that the brothers had brought this upon them. By raiding the homes of the associates, we denied the Arias brothers a place to hide and turned the heat up on the whole El Hoyo gang. Eventually we captured Luis but Vincent remained at large.
We continued to write search warrants and do parole and probation searches on the gang. We monitored his brother’s jail visits, mail, and phone calls. This tactic was designed to close down Vincent Arias’ communication with his family and homeboys, to isolate the suspect from his support system. This began to have a strong effect on him and began to work against the fugitive Vincent mentally.
A very angry and emotional Vincent began calling ELA Station to threaten and complain to Det. Sammy Sanders about police harassing his elderly grandmother and homeboys. His voice was slurred and thick possibly from drugs and alcohol as he screamed into the telephone at Sanders. On one occasion Arias threatened to shoot cops or maybe himself and end it all.
I contacted the emergency operator (this was before the 911 system) and told her that we had a man on the other line threatening suicide and asked for an emergency trace of the call. Sammy continued to work his magic and kept the crying, screaming Vincent on the line. The call was traced to a bank of pay phones on the first floor of the County Criminal Courts Building in downtown Los Angeles.
I quickly called the courthouse and dispatched armed deputies from a courtroom to the phone bank. They ran downstairs with guns in hand only to find an empty phone swinging off the hook and a group of onlookers who had been watching a crazy young man screaming at the receiver. We had just missed him again.
Vincent was now obviously mentally unstable. He was already considered armed and dangerous and if he could walk into the Criminal Court Building, he could walk into the ELA Station. What we did not know was that this hard core East Los Angeles gang member Vincent Arias was changing his whole lifestyle while trying to avoid capture and living on the run. We might have never caught him if it were not for good detective work.
Det. Sanders had been looking all along for one of the cars that the Arias brothers had used in the robberies. A hint from an El Hoyo gang member had us looking in the residential area just North of ELA College.
We found the car that had obviously been parked and locked on the street for a long time. One window had been left open a few inches. Inside we could see folded up notebook papers like high school kids might pass during class. Rather than towing and storing this piece of evidence, we entered the car and retrieved the notes, copied them, and returned everything as we found it. We had found Vincent’s mail drop.
El Hoyo gang girls had been communicating with our fugitive bank robber, keeping him informed about what was happening with his brother and providing him with money and other necessities. To our surprise we learned that Vincent had run out of gang hiding places and had slipped into the darkness of the Holly-weird street scene. He was living with a gay elderly gentleman in Hollywood.
When we hit that residence we recovered Vincent's remaining clothing and personal items, but he was not at home when we arrived. We found pictures of Vincent in his new “Metro” look. But we had missed him again.
Manny Madrid had cultivated an informant who was an early associate of the Mara Salvatrucha gang. Camilo “Milo” Barberena was a former Nicaraguan rebel who was granted asylum in the U.S. and a reliable informant. Milo had a new “job” providing security for drug dealers in the Sunset Pacific Motel in Hollywood. Seeing a wanted poster of Vincent Arias, he told us “that guy is staying in room 209" of the Sunset Pacific Motel.
Early the next morning, we located Vincent’s one remaining vehicle in the parking lot of the motel. The motel was a square like structure with all the rooms facing an open center of the structure. We crept up the stairway and covered the front door of room 209.
Manny Madrid covered the second story rear window with his 12-gauge Ithaca. Sammy Sanders banged loudly on the door while we all tried to avoid the “fatal funnel” the one door created. Suddenly Madrid called out that Vincent had tried to jump out the rear window but seeing the shotgun pointed at him thought better of it. The fox was in a trap, but still dangerous.
We knew that he had used several different guns and Sammy ordered him to come out unarmed and surrender. By this time they had formed a strange rapport during Vincent’s many phone calls. But Vincent refused to come out, threatening to shoot at us…or commit suicide. As we yelled back and forth negotiating with the barricaded suspect, we notified LAPD Rampart SWAT and asked them to roll.
Unnoticed in the excitement the various residents on each of the several floors of the motel came out to the center balcony to watch the drama. It was like an amphitheater with only our one second floor clear of spectators.
Sammy Sanders entered the adjoining room and called Vincent on the motel telephone. For what seemed like hours Sammy pleaded with Vincent to surrender. Finally just as LAPD SWAT arrived, Vincent came out in only his boxer shorts carrying a bible. We took him safely into custody as the SWAT team deployed on the first floor.
A huge cheer went up from the spectators who were pointing down at the LAPD and someone yelled “…you see LAPD that’s how the Sheriffs do it!” A second big cheer occurred when Det. Trevizo opened the trunk of Vincent’s parked car and pulled a second handgun from the trunk.
An FBI Agent, Det. Sanders, and I interviewed the suspects. But because they had worn masks in all the over 40 or so robberies they were suspected of, only the Bank of America identification could hold water.
In one interview room Vincent denied almost everything. But in the other room, although he waived his rights, Luis remained mostly silent. The FBI Agent had provided numerous surveillance photographs of the robbery suspects, and we laid them on the table in front of Luis. He looked at them carefully but said nothing. I started to laugh and held one of the photos in front of his face and said, “you had a lot of nerve to flip off the camera like this didn’t you?!” I had appealed to his ego and he fell for it. “Yes, I did!” he bragged.
In this way we got incriminating statements from both suspects in almost all the robberies. But the story of the Arias brothers was not over yet. During the trial the suspects were transported back and forth on jail buses from our Wayside Facility in Northern LA County. Somehow, during one of these trips, the brothers unscrewed a floor panel in the rear of the bus and dropped onto the freeway to escape. Misjudging the speed of the bus and other traffic, Luis was killed by freeway traffic and Vincent was badly injured. Vincent was eventually convicted and sent to prison.