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U.S. Attorney McGregor W. Scott said, “It’s dangerous and hard work. So thank you to all of you standing behind me.” The three at right in the front row are Secretary Scott Kernan, Undersecretary Ralph Diaz and OCS Chief Derrick Marion.

Story by Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Photos by Eric Owens, CDCR staff photographer
Office of Public and Employee Communications

A violent gang with ties to state prisons was targeted in a massive multi-agency raid dubbed Operation Silent Night that reached across 11 California counties and two other states in the pre-dawn hours of Feb. 14. Two of those netted were already in prison at Pelican Bay, charged with directing their criminal operatives through the use of contraband cell phones. In all, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office, 28 are facing charges ranging from drug trafficking to weapons.

The Office of Correctional Safety (OCS) joined forces with the U.S. Attorney’s office, the Federal Bureau of Investigations, local police departments and sheriff’s offices, the U.S. Postal Service and other agencies to investigate the criminal activity and serve search warrants. According to the U.S. Attorney’s office, the FBI, CDCR and Woodland Police Department led the year-long investigation.

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CDCR Secretary Scott Kernan said he was proud of the work done by CDCR investigators and the cooperation with other local, state and federal agencies.

During a press conference at the federal courthouse in Sacramento, U.S. Attorney McGregor W. Scott announced the arrest of 18 federal defendants on narcotics and weapons-related charges as part of a multi-agency law enforcement investigation into coordinated criminal activity in Woodland. The U.S. Attorney was joined in announcing the results of the operation by FBI Special Agent in Charge Sean Ragan, Woodland Chief of Police Luis Soler, CDCR Secretary Scott Kernan, Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Reisig, and Yolo County Sheriff Ed Prieto. Undersecretary of Operations Ralph Diaz and OCS Chief Derrick Marion were also on hand.

 “Our department is committed to putting a stop to illegal activities conducted by prison gangs in our neighborhoods, schools and communities to further their criminal organizations and instill fear in people,” said Secretary Kernan. “The success of this investigation demonstrates how effective our partnerships are with local, state, and federal agencies. When we work together, we effectively are able to target dangerous individuals in and out of prison. I am thankful and proud of the hard work that went into this operation.”

According to OCS Chief Marion, those arrested include parole and probation violators as well as first-time offenders.

“We had several inmates involved,” he said. “Pelican Bay inmates were involved in directing the criminal organization and their criminals on the streets.”

The gang, Varrio Bosque Norteno, started years ago and is centered in Woodland but the gang’s influence stretches across California and even reaches into other states, according to law enforcement officials.

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OCS Chief Derrick Marion said several inmates were involved. Cell searches were conducted in numerous prisons and two Pelican Bay inmates were charged with directing criminal activities using contraband cell phone.

“This is a highly structured organization,” Chief Marion said.

As part of the sweep, CDCR was heavily involved with numerous cell searches at various prisons. Serving warrants involved six Crisis Response Teams, 10 K-9 units, IGI/ISU personnel from 12 institutions and multiple OCS units including Special Services Unit, Fugitive Apprehension Team and Emergency Operations.

Cell searches were conducted in California Correctional Center, CSP-Solano, Deuel Vocational Institution, High Desert State Prison, Pleasant Valley State Prison, Pelican Bay State Prison and California Health Care Facility.

CRT came from San Quentin, CSP-Solano/California Medical Facility, CSP-Sacramento/Folsom State Prison/Mule Creek State Prison, Sierra Conservation Center, Deuel Vocational Institution/California Health Care Facility and Central California Women’s Facility/Valley State Prison. Those same prisons also assisted through the use of their Investigative Services Unit and Institutional Gang Investigators. According to OCS, the Contract Beds Unit in Sacramento was also involved.

CDCR’s Transportation Unit was called into action to transport those arrested from the command center to the federal courthouse in Sacramento.

More than 750 law enforcement personnel from state, local and federal agencies were brought together to serve the warrants, said Ragan, FBI Special Agent in Charge.

The early morning raid netted 34 weapons, $71,500 in cash, hundreds of pounds of marijuana, some cocaine, a butane honey oil lab and 52 empty bottles of codeine syrup.

U.S. Attorney’s office releases details of massive operation

In the morning on Feb. 14, a coalition of local, state and federal law enforcement officers conducted 69 searches pursuant to federal warrants and parole or probation search conditions at various locations throughout Northern California. Officers arrested 18 individuals on charges alleged in six separate federal indictments and one federal criminal complaint that were unsealed the same day. Three additional, related criminal complaints were filed this week, one in the Eastern District of California, one in the Western District of Pennsylvania, and one in the District of Oregon. In addition, local officials arrested more than 10 additional individuals on state charges as part of the operation. The investigation focused on coordinated criminal activity that centered in Yolo County but extended to other Northern California counties and prisons.

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The take-down spread across 11 California counties and two other states. The Feb. 14 searches focused on the highlighted counties.

Beginning in the spring of 2016, this investigation uncovered organized criminal activity in Woodland with ties to criminal organizations located in California’s jail and prison system. Although centered in Yolo County, the investigation revealed that at least nine other California counties were negatively impacted by these criminal organizations: Sacramento, Sutter, Colusa, Yuba, Del Norte, Solano, Fresno, Santa Clara and Siskiyou.

The investigation focused on intercepting communications of those involved in drug and firearms offenses – including cellphone communications, social media communications on Facebook and Instagram, and clandestine communications on Snapchat and other platforms. In several instances, these modes of communication were used to sell weapons and coordinate the sales of cocaine, methamphetamine, and prescription drugs. In some instances, it is alleged that prison inmates directed defendants outside the prisons to smuggle drugs into the prison or to sell and distribute narcotics outside the prison.

“(This) operation is the result of a months-long endeavor involving federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies to disrupt coordinated criminal activity that, although centered in Yolo County, spread to several other Northern California counties,” said U.S. Attorney Scott. “This operation demonstrates how federal law enforcement can join forces with our state and local partners to make our communities safer and stop illegal guns and drugs from flooding our streets.”

“The FBI is committed to joining forces with our state and local partners to effectively combat the gang and drug-related violence that plagues our communities,” said Special Agent in Charge Sean Ragan of the FBI Sacramento Field Office. “Our shared goal is stopping gang violence, getting drugs and weapons off the streets, and helping to bring justice to the victims of crimes committed in our communities. (These) arrests demonstrate the strength of successful law enforcement collaboration and highlight our shared commitment to the public we serve.”

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Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Reisig holds a photo of Ronald Antonio, who was killed by two gang members in 2016.

According to Ragan, the agency used wiretaps, social media monitoring and other methods to build their case.

“Over the last several years, many of the defendants who were arrested today and their associates have plagued Yolo County with their criminal activity.  This operation has helped to disable their organization at its most basic level and will hopefully have positive long term impacts on public safety,” said Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Reisig.

Reisig held up a photograph of one of those killed by the gang.

“I’m also here today to speak on behalf of the victims,” he said. “This is Ronald Antonio. In August 2016, he was chased down and stabbed to death by members of this violent gang.”

Operation Silent Night is the product of an investigation by the FBI, CDCR, Yolo County District Attorney, Woodland Police Department, and the California Highway Patrol. The following agencies provided substantial assistance: Colusa County Sheriff’s Office, Sacramento Police Department, Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office, West Sacramento Police Department, Yolo County Sheriff’s Office, Davis Police Department, Yuba City Police Department, Yuba County Sheriff’s Office, Sutter County Sheriff’s Office, Solano County Sheriff’s Office, Vacaville Police Department, the Correctional Intelligence Task Force (CITF), Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).  Assistant U.S. Attorneys Owen Roth and Justin L. Lee are prosecuting the cases.

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“With the FBI, you have a fully committed partner. This was a massive undertaking,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Sean Ragan.

Those facing federal charges

  • Aldo Arellano, 24, of Marysville, is charged with distribution of methamphetamine.
  • Raul Barajas, 21, of Woodland, is charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and to distribute controlled substances, and possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine.
  • Patrick Botello, 31, of Pelican Bay State Prison, is charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and to distribute methamphetamine and heroin and using a cellphone to facilitate a drug trafficking offense.
  • Israel Covarrubias, 25, of Woodland, is charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and to distribute controlled substances after having been convicted of a felony drug offense, possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine, distribution of methamphetamine, and using a cellphone to facilitate a drug trafficking offense.
  • Milton Escobedo, 28, of Woodland, is charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and to distribute controlled substances, distribution of cocaine, and using a cellphone to facilitate a drug trafficking offense.
  • Rachel Felix, 38, of Woodland, is charged with distribution of methamphetamine.
  • Ashley Habash, 28, of Marysville, is charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and to distribute methamphetamine and heroin and using a cellphone to facilitate a drug trafficking offense.
  • Edgar Jimenez, 19, of Sacramento, is charged with distribution of cocaine and using a cellphone to facilitate a drug trafficking offense.
  • Justin Johnson, 33, of Sacramento, is charged with possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine and being a felon in possession of a firearm.
  • Jose Madrigal-Vega, 31, Woodland, is charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and to distribute controlled substances, and distribution of methamphetamine.
  • Victor Magana, 24, of Woodland, is charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and to distribute controlled substances, possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine, distribution of methamphetamine, distribution of cocaine, and using a cellphone to facilitate a drug trafficking offense.
  • James Masterson, 28, of Newcastle, is charged with using a cellphone to facilitate a drug trafficking offense.
  • Brenda Miranda, 21, of Napa, is charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and to distribute methamphetamine and heroin and using a cellphone to facilitate a drug trafficking offense.
  • Reginald Pajimola, 23, of Marysville, is charged with possession with intent to distribute cocaine and using a cellphone to facilitate a drug trafficking offense.
  • Mercedez Silva-Sims, 21, of Colusa, is charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and to distribute methamphetamine and heroin and using a cellphone to facilitate a drug trafficking offense.
  • Joshua Sims, 24, of Colusa, is charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and to distribute methamphetamine and heroin, attempted distribution of methamphetamine, using a cellphone to facilitate a drug trafficking offense, and distribution of cocaine.
  • Erica Umbay, 42, of Woodland, is charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm.
  • Ricardo Villa, 39, of Pelican Bay State Prison, is charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and to distribute methamphetamine and heroin, and using a cellphone to facilitate a drug trafficking offense.
  • Trevor White, 27, of Sacramento, is charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and to distribute controlled substances and distribution of methamphetamine.

Two additional defendants are being charged in the District of Oregon and the Western District of Pennsylvania. The Yolo County District Attorney’s Office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office continue to review possible charges against additional potential defendants.

Combating organized crime

This case is part of an Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF). The OCDETF program was established in 1982 to conduct comprehensive, multilevel attacks on major drug trafficking and money laundering organizations. The principal mission of the OCDETF program is to identify, disrupt, and dismantle the most serious drug trafficking and money laundering organizations and those primarily responsible for the nation’s drug supply.

This case is brought as part of Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN), an initiative that brings together federal, state and local law enforcement to combat gun and gang crime. At the core of PSN is increased federal prosecution to incapacitate chronic violent offenders as well as to communicate a credible deterrent threat to potential gun offenders.