LOS ANGELES - Eight men believed to be leaders of the violent Canoga Park Alabama street gang based in the San Fernando Valley pleaded not guilty Friday to state conspiracy and extortion charges that, with the accompanying gang sentencing enhancement, could send them to prison for life.
The defendants are named in an 11-count state grand jury indictment unsealed Friday by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Patricia M. Schnegg. Six of the case targets were arrested Nov. 4 in an operation spearheaded by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Office of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). The remaining two defendants were already in custody on unrelated charges.
The indictment is the culmination of a nearly two-year multi-agency investigation focusing on the Canoga Park Alabama gang's suspected involvement with extortion. The indictment alleges that between Oct. 1, 2009, and Oct. 31 of this year, the defendants demanded and collected "taxes" from street narcotics dealers in return for allowing those dealers to operate on the gang's turf.
The indictment was returned Oct. 28 by the grand jury. Because the charged offenses were allegedly committed with the intention of benefiting a criminal street gang, prosecutors in the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office are seeking a "gang enhancement," making the defendants subject to a maximum penalty of life in prison if they are convicted. They are being held on $1 million bail each.
"I applaud this multi-agency effort at striking a strategic blow to one of the Valley's most ruthless gangs," District Attorney Steve Cooley said.
Those charged in the case are:
- Octavio "Sinner" Garcia, 30, of Canoga Park.;
- Joseph "Lil Man" Encinas, 28, of Canoga Park;
- Osvaldo "Babo" Sanchez, 22, of Canoga Park;
- Alejandro "Sicko" Flores, 23, of Canoga Park;
- Ramiro "Speedy" Mendoza, 37, of West Hills.;
- Jaime "Jimmy" Valenzuela, 29, of Canoga Park;
- Braulio "Necio" Garcia, 24, of Canoga Park; and
- Jairo Melendez, 31, of Canoga Park.
Last week's operation was the latest enforcement action in an investigation initiated by ICE HSI and the LAPD in February 2009. Prior to this month, investigators had made 45 other federal and state criminal arrests in the case, as well as 12 arrests on administrative immigration violations.
ICE's HSI's participation in the investigation is part of the agency's ongoing nationwide anti-gang initiative known as Operation Community Shield. Under Operation Community Shield, the agency is using its powerful immigration and customs authorities in a coordinated, national campaign against criminal street gangs across the country.
"Our collective enforcement efforts in this case have dealt a severe blow to one of the most dangerous street gangs here in the Los Angeles area," Claude Arnold, special agent in charge of ICE HSI in Los Angeles. "These arrests should be very welcome news for a community that has seen firsthand the blight of violence, hate and crime that gangs like this incite."
LAPD's Deputy Chief Kirk J. Albanese, commanding officer of operations with the Valley Bureau, said Canoga Park Alabama has been involved in violent crime in the San Fernando Valley for a many years. "As a result of their criminal activity, the community has lived in fear for far too long," he said.
Added Albanese, "The hate based criminal activities that have become a staple for this gang will never be tolerated. These arrests will mark the beginning of the end for this violent criminal street gang."
Deputy Albanese thanked Homeland Security Investigations for their strong efforts as the lead agency in this investigation. He also thanked the Federal Bureau of Investigation -Civil Rights Bureau, the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office, the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department and all of the agencies that participated in this multi-agency effort.
ICE HSI and the LAPD received substantial assistance in the case and with the Nov. 4 operation from the FBI, the California Department of Corrections Parole Division, the Los Angeles County Probation Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.