These heroin "tomatillos" were seized in Men's Central Jail in the mid-1990s. Photo: Richard Valdemar

These heroin "tomatillos" were seized in Men's Central Jail in the mid-1990s. Photo: Richard Valdemar

One of the best "weapons of mass destruction" (WMD) in the war against criminal gangs is the use of covert police wiretapping or electronic surveillance. This formidable tool is designed to dismantle criminal gangs involved in multiple criminal conspiracies like drug dealing, extortion, and murder. It has been successfully used against organizations ranging from local Crip sets and Outlaw motorcycle gangs (OMGs) to Mexican and Colombian drug trafficking organizations (DTOs).

In the United States, the Supreme Court and the Appellate Courts have ruled that beside the rights enumerated in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, the people have an additional right, the "right to privacy." This right to privacy in one's own home and communication between private parties has been carefully protected and strengthened in court decisions over the years. So despite what you might hear about "Big Brother" and the "USA PATRIOT Act" (H.R. 3162) the use of wiretaps by law enforcement in the United States is highly restricted.

Title III Taps

Federal wiretaps are authorized under The Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968. Congress passed this legislation shortly after the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, establishing the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA).

Title III of the Safe Streets Act sets rules for obtaining wiretap orders in the United States. Our federal friends refer to wiretaps as "Title 3" or "T-3" cases. A Title III case is a must have item on a federal agent's or U.S. Attorney's resume, if he or she wishes to advance up the chain of command in the organization.

But obtaining a federal court Order for a Title III is no easy matter. Other "more traditional," investigative methods must have first been exhausted.

Also, Title III cases are not easy to execute. The manning of high-tech T-3 rooms is labor intensive and very expensive. Usually more than one phone line will be identified for monitoring during the interception of calls, and this multiplies the labor hours and expense by each additional line. Following the complex federal requirements to maintain the evidentiary value of the tapes, in addition to translating and transcribing the hours of criminal content recordings, all require more people, time, and money. But if done properly, a T-3 is worth it.

But you have to follow the rules. For example, information of a dangerous or criminal nature obtained from the wire must be acted upon. If you hear that "so and so" is going to be murdered, you are obliged by law to attempt to prevent the attempt. You need to do this while maintaining the secrecy of the wire tap. For this reason an active surveillance team is often utilized.

The active surveillance team physically confirms information derived from intercepted communication and intervenes in some cases to prevent death or violence. Sometimes separate local, state, or county police are used for physical surveillance. Occasionally when intercepted communications seem to have gone dormant, the surveillance team will also be used to deliberately arrest or conduct a traffic stop on individuals to cause them to increase their criminal communications or "tickle the wire."

California Wire Taps

After a 40-year legislative struggle, California's Gov. George Deukmejian signed the "Presley-Felando-Eaves Wire Tap Act" (SB 1499) on May 20, 1988. Effective Jan. 1, 1989, it added section 629 to the California Penal Code, which authorized wire tap interception and provided a detailed structure for wiretapping implementation.

But even after it was signed, the California legislature continued to fight over the new law. Senate Bill 83 was passed establishing a five-year sunset provision that would remove the wire tap law if it was not successfully used in a case by 1994. It also removed certain language from PC 629.32 (c) of the law. The sunset was extended in 1993 to Jan. 1, 1999. Finally, in 1995, Senate Bill 1016 made several substantial changes in the law. Conspicuous by its absence from the laundry list of felony crimes that wire taps could be legally used for investigating, was the crime of public corruption. It was obvious that there were forces in Sacramento who opposed wire taps, and unless a case was made before the sunset date, California law enforcement would lose the Wire Tap Act.

Our Case

Following the Rodney King Riots of April 29, 1992, race riots broke out between African-American and Latino inmates throughout the Los Angeles County jail system. The riots spread to California Department of Corrections facilities and out to prisons and jails in Las Vegas and Arizona. These riots were organized and under the direction of the Mexican Mafia prison gang and ordered by inmates housed in L.A. County facilities. They continued for several years.

In January 1995 LASD Operation Safe Jails (OSJ) and Special Investigation Bureau (SPI) identified inmate Paul "Shorty" Ramirez, an associate of the Mexican Mafia, as the instigator of a particularly bad riot that broke out in the Peter J. Pitches Detention Center. Hispanic inmates were receiving their orders from "shot callers" like Ramirez, whose authority and direction came from Mexican Mafia prison gang members isolated in security housing units like 1750 of Men's Central Jail.

The orders were transmitted from the row of telephones in unit 1750 and passed to third parties like gang members' wives and girlfriends on the outside. Not only did these Mexican Mafia members order riots, but also drug deliveries, extortions, gang taxation, and even murders.

Unfortunately, unlike telephones in other county, state, and federal detention facilities, the phones in Los Angeles County facilities were not routinely monitored. The L.A. Board of Supervisors had opined that most inmates in the county jail were "pre-sentenced" and therefore enjoyed an "inmate right to privacy." This opinion was based on an old Rose Byrd California Supreme Court decision.

To overcome this problem the SPI Prison Gang detectives, including myself, theorized that the California state wire tap act could be used to monitor the unit 1750 phones. If successful this would also fulfill the sunset provisions and save the act.

Det. Sal Munoz of the Prison Gang Unit, Special Investigations Bureau, and the OSJ gang unit, assisted the Jail Investigations Unit (JIU) in preparing the application for the state wire tap. A state wire tap application was written with the assistance of Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorneys Curt Hazel and Nancy Lidamore, and signed by Sheriff Sherman Block, District Attorney Gil Garcetti, and Presiding Judge of the Superior Court John W. Ouderkirk.

The irony was not lost upon us; we were actually requesting a court order to tap our own county jail phones.

In part two of this article, the author will discuss the results of the tap and its repercussions. Look for it on Tuesday.


Richard Valdemar
Richard Valdemar

Sergeant (Ret.)

Sgt. Richard Valdemar retired from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department after spending most of his 33 years on the job combating gangs.

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Sgt. Richard Valdemar retired from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department after spending most of his 33 years on the job combating gangs.

View Bio