LawFuel – An FBI-led task force, working in conjunction with local police, has targeted a Santa Maria street gang, marking the first time that federal authorities have joined with local police and prosecutors to identify and prosecute people affiliated with a Central Coast street gang.
This morning, in a coordinated effort involving approximately 75 law enforcement officials, 11 defendants were arrested on federal and state charges. They are among 25 people charged by prosecutors in relation to criminal activity associated with the Northwest gang, which has operated for decades in the City of Santa Maria.
“As we have demonstrated over the last several years, the only way to effectively fight the gang problem that plagues too many neighborhoods in our district is for local, state and federal authorities to join together to combat this issue,” United States Attorney Thomas P. O’Brien said at a press conference in Santa Maria. “You are seeing this collaborative effort for the first time on the Central Coast.”
Federal prosecutors have charged 17 defendants related to the Northwest gang. Several of the defendants potentially face sentences of life in federal prison, where there is no parole. All 17 defendants are facing mandatory minimum sentences of at least five years. The Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office has charged the remaining eight defendants.
During the investigation, which was conducted by the FBI’s Central Coast Safe Streets Task Force, working in conjunction with the Santa Maria Police Department, investigators seized nearly two pounds of methamphetamine, over five ounces of cocaine, two handguns and an assault rifle.
“We are pleased to be part of this partnership, which takes a regional approach to the suppression of criminal gang activity,” said Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown. “The formation of the Central Coast Safe Streets Task Force is a shining example of law enforcement agencies working together to make our communities safer. It is part of our continuing commitment to a blended approach to dealing with gang activity and gang violence on the Central Coast. That approach involves a variety of enforcement, intervention, and prevention efforts.”
The federal defendants are all charged with trafficking methamphetamine. The charges filed by the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office include possession of methamphetamine for sale and felon in possession of a firearm.
“Today’s operation shows how successful actions joining local and federal resources to target dangerous criminal gang activities in our communities,” stated Santa Barbara County District Attorney Christie Stanley. “It is our goal to make our cities and streets safer for all with operations such as this.”
At a press conference in March, United States Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey announced the formation of the Central Coast Safe Streets Task Force, although at that time the location of the Task Force was not revealed so as to maintain the integrity of the investigation being announced today. The FBI now has six Safe Streets Task Forces operating in the seven-county Central District of California. The Safe Streets Violent Crime Initiative allows each FBI Field Division to address violent street gangs and drug-related violence through the establishment of FBI-sponsored, long-term, proactive task forces focusing on violent gangs, crimes of violence, and the apprehension of violent fugitives.
“Unfortunately, the nation’s gang problem, for so long confined to its biggest cities, has spread to less urban and populated areas – including California’s Central Coast,” said Salvador Hernandez, Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI in Los Angeles. “To counter the threat locally, the FBI and its law enforcement partners in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties have joined forces. Today’s arrests, the product of the Central Coast Violent Gang Safe Streets Task Force established earlier this year, demonstrate that joint commitment.”
San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Pat Hedges commented: “Illegal street gang activity in our communities deserve our full attention, and they are receiving it. The cooperative effort between local and federal law enforcement and local and federal prosecutors will have a tremendous impact on curtailing gang-related crimes in our area.”
The investigation into the Northwest gang resulted in 17 defendants being indicted by a federal grand jury in Los Angeles. All but one of those 17 are residents of Santa Maria. Those defendants are listed below in order of the maximum potential mandatory minimum sentence they are facing.
Subject to a mandatory life in prison sentence:
• Daniel Valdez Benitez, aka Sporty, 28, who is charged with conspiring to distribute approximately 110 grams of methamphetamine, was arrested earlier this year and is scheduled to go to trial on December 16.
Subject to a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence:
• Adrian Armando Guerrero, aka Big A, 37, who is charged with trafficking approximately 90 grams actual methamphetamine, is currently in state custody.
• Michael Anthony Liendo, aka Big Mike, 34, who is charged with trafficking approximately 90 grams actual methamphetamine, was arrested this morning.
• Alexander Simartin Nogalez, 31, who is charged with trafficking approximately 90 grams actual methamphetamine, was taken into custody yesterday on a parole violation.
• Jesse Anthony Nunez, aka Birdy, 29, who is charged with conspiracy to distribute approximately 110 grams of methamphetamine, was arrested earlier this year and is scheduled to go to trial on December 16.
Subject to a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence:
• Anna Marie Leal, 21, who is charged with trafficking approximately 90 grams of methamphetamine, was arrested this morning.
• Christoval Pena, 50, of Oceano, who is charged with trafficking 18.5 grams of methamphetamine, is currently incarcerated in state prison.
• Rupert Nicolas Rodriguez Jr., 31, who is charged with trafficking approximately 70 grams of methamphetamine, was arrested this morning.
Subject to a five-year mandatory minimum sentence:
• Francisco Gerardo Alcala, aka Francisco Geraldo Alcala and Big Sporty, the brother of Daniel Benitez, 35, an illegal alien from Mexico, who is charged with trafficking approximately 10 grams of methamphetamine, was arrested earlier this year and is scheduled to go to trial December 2.
• Amy Josette Garcia Estrada, 40, who is charged with trafficking approximately 5.4 grams actual methamphetamine, is currently in state custody, but is expected to be turned over to federal authorities today.
• Christina Pauline Valdez, aka Christina Pauline Samaniego and Misdemeanor, 32, who is charged with trafficking 10 grams of methamphetamine, was arrested earlier this year and is scheduled to go to trial on December 2.
• Eddie Joseph Ward, 27, who is charged with trafficking 10 grams of methamphetamine, was arrested this morning.
• Joe Anthony Ward, aka Caveman, 29, who is charged with trafficking 10 grams of methamphetamine, was arrested yesterday.
The defendants arrested yesterday and today on federal charges, as well as those already in custody on probation or parole violations, are expected to make their initial court appearances tomorrow morning in United States District Court in Los Angeles.
There are four fugitives currently being sought by authorities who are facing federal charges. They are:
• Peggy Sue Liendo Velasquez, 50, who is charged with trafficking approximately 90 grams of methamphetamine;
• Santina Marie Rea, 26, who is charged with trafficking 18.5 grams of methamphetamine;
• Vincent Nathaniel Beltran, aka Smalls, 19, who is charged with trafficking approximately 10 grams of methamphetamine; and
• Cesar Raul Castillo, 41, who is charged with trafficking approximately 10 grams of methamphetamine.
Seven of the eight defendants facing charges in Santa Barbara Superior Court were arrested this morning. The defendants facing local charges are:
• Amanda Chavez, 26, of Santa Maria;
• Armando Chavez, 26, of Santa Maria;
• Amy Estrada, 40, of Santa Maria;
• Javier Limon, 31, of Santa Maria;
• Fernando Medina, 32, of Nipomo;
• Salvador Medina, 34, of Irving, Texas (who is still being sought);
• Lorraine Valdez, 32, of Santa Maria; and
• William Martinez, 30, of Santa Maria;
The first six state defendants are charged with narcotics offenses, while Valdez is charged with conspiracy to commit the crime of felon in possession of a firearm and Martinez is charged with grand theft.
The federal indictments and the charges filed by the Santa Barbara County District Attorney contain allegations that a defendant has committed a crime. Every defendant is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty.
The cases announced today are the result of a coordinated investigation by the FBI’s Central Coast Safe Streets Task Force, which is made up of agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and investigators with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department and the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department. The Santa Maria Police Department worked in close collaboration with the Task Force.
During this morning’s takedown, the Task Force received the assistance of the Drug Enforcement Administration; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE); the Lompoc Police Department; and the United States Marshals Service.
CONTACT: Assistant United States Attorney John J. Lulejian
Violent and Organized Crime Section
Assistant United States Attorney Gregory A. Lesser
Violent and Organized Crime Section