RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- Attempting to behead the leadership of the notorious Vagos motorcycle gang, authorities arrested 10 members suspected of drug-trafficking and a rash of violence -- including the recent murder of a rival Hells Angel member in a Nevada casino -- in a series of law enforcement raids Thursday throughout Southern California.
The crackdown comes after an 18-month investigation led by the state Department of Justice into one of the most violent criminal motorcycle gangs in the nation, authorities said. Members of the gang, which started in the Inland Empire in the 1960s, stand accused of suspicion of murder, rape, weapons violations, money-laundering and drug violations.
"It's a dangerous organization ... that's responsible for putting drugs into our communities and schools," said senior special sgent David King, head of the bureau of narcotics enforcement in Riverside. "These individuals are armed to protect their criminal enterprise, and they've shown how quickly they are willing to use their guns in public."
State agents joined with local law enforcement agencies early Thursday to execute 52 search warrants in San Bernardino, Riverside, Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Santa Barbara and Imperial counties. Arrest warrants also were issued for 12 high-ranking Vagos members, 10 of whom were in custody by late morning.
A team of officers from the San Bernardino Police Department and state Department of Justice took a battering ram to the door of the Vagos international president in Colton, Calif., busting into the house with weapons drawn.
The Vagos leader was gone, but officers handcuffed another man inside and escorted a woman and young child outside while they searched the house. The tiny stucco home, with its tot-size basketball hoop in the driveway and towering palms outside, blended into others in the blue-collar neighborhood.
The only indication that a Vagos member lived inside was the black Harley Davidson emblem decorating the home's address number on the curb.
The Vagos leader remains at large. Authorities asked that he not be identified until his arrest.
A few miles away, near the Cal State San Bernardino campus, another squad raided the house of Scott Rivera, spending hours inside searching for weapons, drugs and evidence of his involvement with the Vagos.
Rivera, a bald, heavyset man with a Fu Manchu mustache, gave only a silent, icy stare as officers led him out of the house in handcuffs and loaded him into a squad car. Rivera was arrested on suspicion of stealing cars.
Authorities raided a Vagos clubhouse in the remote Riverside County town on Anza as well as one in North Hollywood, a storefront biker clothing story. More than 200 weapons were seized, including 100 from a house in Alhambra and 50 in Diamond Bar.
"It's going to be a tremendous blow, because we're targeting their top leaders," said special agent Andy Spillman of the Department of Justice, one of the lead investigators on the case.
Before Thursday's raids, more than 25 Vagos members already had been taken into custody, and authorities had recovered 26 firearms, a rocket launcher and grenade launcher during the investigation. Earlier in the operation, investigators also had seized 200 kilos of cocaine during a raid in Los Angeles not far from Cal State L.A.
The state Department of Justice launched "Operation Simple Green" in 2010 to dismantle the Vagos' extensive narcotics and money-laundering operations, which included the wholesale distribution of cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin and marijuana.
The Mexican drug cartels are one of the many narcotics suppliers Vagos members are suspected of using, said San Bernardino police officer Erick Bennett.
Bennett said the sweeping investigation began with a simple narcotics case back in 2010 that eventually led to a vast drug enterprise run by Vagos members. During the investigation, authorities uncovered an unsuccessful murder-for-hire plot and two suspected rapes.
Among the Vagos members taken into custody were some suspected to be involved in a Sept. 23 shooting that killed Jeffrey "Jethro" Pettigrew, 51, the president of the San Jose chapter of the Hells Angels during the annual Street Vibrations motorcycle festival in Sparks, Nev.
Pettigrew was inside John Ascuaga's Nugget Casino Resort when he was shot four times in the back, authorities said. Two Vagos members also were shot in a brawl that followed. The violent melee forced the town's mayor to declare a state of emergency and to cancel the event.
Last week, Vagos gang member Ernesto Manuel Gonzalez, 53, of San Jose, was arrested in San Francisco on suspicion of murder; he is awaiting an extradition hearing. King said that Vagos members taken into custody on Thursday are suspected of being involved in the killing, and could face charges of conspiracy to commit murder.
"Our investigators are working hand-in-hand with the Sparks Police Department to assist in their investigation," King said.
He added that "every available investigative resource" was used in the operation, including statewide wire intercepts.
"They're a transnational gang with more than 500 members worldwide," King said. "So obviously they deal in bulk narcotics trafficking and sales all the way down to the local level."
Authorities on Thursday asked for the public's help to identify the victim of an alleged gang rape by four Vagos members at the Starting Gate bar in Los Alamitos during the first week in March. The victim of the rape has yet to step forward.
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