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Operation Scrapbook nabs guns, drugs, cash, gang members

Story, photos by Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Office of Public and Employee Communications

Atwater used to be known as the home of the strategic air command training center at Castle Air Force Base. While shuttered for a few decades, the base again served as a strategic command center, this time targeting streets gangs infesting California’s central valley.

The former military base was bustling with activity as nearly 500 federal, state and local law enforcement personnel hit street gangs in pre-dawn raids, nabbing more than 50 Sureno gang members. One of the co-investigating agencies was CDCR’s Office of Correctional Safety (OCS).

The old base, today a community air park, is now home to the Merced County Emergency Operations Center. A nearby field, fenced off from view, served as the booking location for those caught in the operation’s net.

Dubbed “Operation Scrapbook,” the massive endeavor also resulted in the largest haul of seized firearms in Merced County history, according to county District Attorney Larry D Morse II.

Planning for the operation began back in February.

“Seventy guns were seized just this morning. Many of the guns are high-powered, assault-style weapons,” Morse said. “This brings the total to 120 guns seized since the start of the operations. These weapons were destined to hit the streets throughout California, causing destruction and mayhem. … Lives literally have been saved as a result of these efforts.”

CCWF and VSP’s combined CRT had 22 members involved in the raids. Courtesy photo.

Anti-gang operations in Merced County over the last two years crippled the Norteno gangs, particularly in Atwater and Winton, he said. That’s when law enforcement began noticing an uptick in Sureno gang activity in the area, as the southern Mexican Mafia gangs moved in to fill the void.

“Merced Area Gang and Narcotic Enforcement Team (MAGNET) task force members and intelligence analysts from the District Attorney’s VIPER (Violence Interruption/Prevention Emergency Response) program began to gather information that La Eme prison gang leadership had infiltrated Sureno street gangs in Merced County through extortion and fear and began imposing ‘taxes’ on some of the nearly one dozen Sureno subset gangs operating in the county,” according to Morse. La Eme is also known as the Mexican Mafia.

A reporter asked Morse why the operation was named “Scrapbook” since the term “scrap” is considered derogatory, used as a slur by Norteno gang members to describe Sureno members.

“We’re not in the business of showing respect to gang members,” Morse said. “We aren’t going to stop (with this operation). This is just the beginning.”

Morse said many of the tips in the investigation came from the gang members.

“Gang members are only too happy to roll over on others and their mothers to save themselves an extra day in jail,” he said. “Most (of the tips) came from squealing Surenos.”

CDCR targets Mexican Mafia leaders

John Prelip, CDCR’s OCS Special Agent in Charge, said since the Mexican Mafia was giving directions from inside the state’s prisons, OCS was heavily involved.

All Special Agents of the Special Service Unit (SSU) Fresno field office are assigned to local county, state, and federal task forces. Each Special Agent working with their assigned task force participated in Wednesday’s operation by serving residential search warrants and arrest warrants for suspects.

Special Agents from the SSU Rancho Cordova and Bay Area offices along with the Sacramento Fugitive Apprehension Team (FAT) also assisted in the operation. SSU coordinated efforts with state prisons to use their Crisis Response Teams (CRT) to help serve warrants. Ten prisons also conducted searches in coordination with the operation. The CDCR Transportation Unit also participated.

“Our biggest role was to identify the Mexican Mafia inside our prisons,” said Prelip. “We’ve been involved since the beginning. … This operation correlates with our mission … to act as liaison with outside law enforcement agencies.”

The official OCS mission is “to protect the public and serve the CDCR investigative and security interests. The OCS is the primary departmental link with allied law enforcement agencies and the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.”

Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke said previous efforts targeting gangs seriously impacted their criminal network.

“From our previous operations, many of those are still in my county jail so we’re doing a pretty good number on them,” he said. “We’re going to keep coming and coming hard.”

View from the ground

CRT members gathered before sunrise to assist local agencies in serving warrants. Sierra Conservation Center had two teams at two different locations.

CRT team leader Sgt. Keith Petrey, while unable to discuss specifics, said when they got into position, their training took over.

“Making our approach to the target location, there were other agencies that were already at their target location. At that point, we knew it was time for us to really put our game faces on and go back to our training as far as warrant services are concerned,” he said.

In the dark, the team approached the house. Kids were playing with their toys when the team members entered.

“When we made entry to the house, there were multiple kids there,” he said. “We cleared the house. We got to our target and arrested him without incident.”

According to the district attorney, the Child Protective Services (CPS) agency was very involved in the operation.

Sgt. Petrey said his team was fortunate as the children seemed to be OK.

“CPS was heavily involved in this and they just wanted to have a record of what the house looked like on the inside. Luckily enough, the kids (appeared to be) very well taken care of,” he said.

For the team, after the suspect was in custody, they breathed a collective sigh of relief.

“There was a sense of accomplishment,” Sgt. Petrey said. “For us, it’s a great feeling to be able to assist the local agencies to help protect their communities. The local agencies understand we are a huge asset to everyone throughout the state.”

SCC’s other team assisted in seizing guns and thousands in cash, he said.

Lt. Mark Lopez headed up a CRT team from Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison, Corcoran.

“Three CRTs assisted in enforcing search and arrest warrants at known Mexican Mafia associates’ homes all over Merced County. Members of the CRT approached the residences, demanded entry and entered the dwelling without using any force,” Lt. Lopez said. “Many of these dwellings were in cities that were surrounded by schools, homes and commercial businesses so violence was not an option nor could it be a contingency. The success of the CRTs involvement was speed, surprise and superior mindset in tactical execution of these warrants.”

With a chill in the air, before the sun rose, CRTs coordinated their approach with others at different locations so as not to tip off the suspects.

District Attorney Morse said the operation was well executed.

“There were detailed, elaborate briefings that took place before this morning’s raid,” he said. “This is a very well organized operation. Search and arrest warrants were already issued, mainly for Atwater, Winton, Merced, Hilmar and Turlock. … This was all accomplished today without a shot being fired.”

Lt. Lopez said information was instantly shared with the rest of the operation.

“One dwelling was a known area for street gang members to stash weapons and narcotics. Although a young mother, with a child, was the listed renter, latest surveillance revealed that a known violent gang member, wanted for attempted murder of a prison gang member, had recently stayed with her,” said Lt. Lopez. “This gang member had recently fired a handgun at police and was wanted. Members of the CRT approached the entrance, verbally demanding entry. The home was swiftly searched and cleared of any known, wanted violent suspects and information was dispatched to command so that real time results were relayed to over 500 peace officers.”

CCWF/VSP Crisis Response Team members search a house during Operation Scrapbook. Courtesy photo.

Since many of the raids were in residential areas, caution was exercised.

“Strictly adhering to the search warrant time frames is mandatory,” he said. “Times are specifically set with the uninvolved in mind. … A CRT member approaches a home with lethal force in hand. Your parameters have no room for mistake or misidentification.

“Some target areas were in the middle of apartment complexes so officers approached the area knowing that the neighbors are watching, may be ready to assist, resist or alarm the occupants of the dwelling. In most cases, three and four apartments were approached simultaneously by numerous tactical personnel unaware of each other’s ability and forced to rely on their training and trust in each other’s preparedness. The warrant is specific and despite a peace officer’s intuition, the search warrant must be executed minimizing liability and maximizing evidentiary value.”

By the numbers

“Some of the most violent criminals in our communities have been taken off our streets,” said Morse. “Some people arrested were already in custody. They are being re-arrested and charged with new crimes.”

While 49 were arrested on the day of the raid, 63 have been arrested since the start of the operation. They nabbed 120 guns since the operation started, 70 seized the day of the raid. According to Morse, they also seized 21,000 rounds of ammunition.

Attorney General Xavier Becerra said agents also seized $265,961 in currency since the beginning of the investigation, as well as $1.7 million worth of cocaine, marijuana and 6.5 pounds of methamphetamine.

“Keeping our communities safe must be our number one priority,” Becerra said. “(This) bust is a prime example of law enforcement working together at all levels to put criminals behind bars.”

Learn more about OCS, http://www.cdcr.ca.gov/adult_operations/OCS.html