The Gangfighters Network is an organization designed to bridge the gap between academia and the criminal justice professions. For more information, visit and The focus is on gangs, initially adult gangs as it appears they have been ignored or absorbed into the mainstream society. There's a special focus on gang members in the military.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Conspiracy involving gang yields 40 arrests

Credit union lost $500,000 in scheme

Originally published 2:00 a.m. May 14, 2009, updated 10:32 a.m., May 14, 2009

Depositing counterfeit checks and withdrawing the cash before banks discover they are fake is a common crime that happens several times a day in San Diego County.

But having a street gang behind a conspiracy that caused a credit union to lose $500,000 could be a first in state history.

State and federal law enforcement officials made that announcement yesterday morning with the arrests of 40 people in the check-cashing scheme, including some active members of the military. Twenty more people are being sought.

“This is the first time a violent street gang has been targeted for its involvement in complex bank fraud in California,” District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said. “It clearly shows gangs are moving from street corner drug dealing and pimping to complex fraud.”

Of the 60 suspects who have been identified, 16 are documented members of a gang that claims San Diego's Lincoln Park neighborhood as its territory, authorities said.

Many of the defendants are not in the military but are somehow affiliated, either by working on a base or through a relative. That gave them membership to Navy Federal Credit Union, which absorbed the losses.

Three members of the Marines, one member of the Army and one member of the Navy have been identified as suspects. Two have been arrested.

During a news conference, Dumanis explained that gang members would create a fraudulent check and then have a credit union member deposit it into his or her account. The member would then travel to Barona Casino and withdraw the money before the credit union could determine that the check was counterfeit.

The checks ranged from several thousand to tens of thousands of dollars, and the account holder would receive a commission of several hundred dollars.

When Navy Federal contacted the credit union member about the fraud, the account holder would say that his or her identity had been stolen and would sign an affidavit swearing to that. The credit union would then absorb the loss.

Gang members also were indicted in a mortgage-fraud scheme last month. Dumanis noted the trend of gangs getting into more sophisticated crime and vowed to prosecute them.

The credit union fraud started in 2005 and was used to pay for luxuries such as new cars, clothing and jewelry, San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne said. Authorities do not believe the money was used to finance more crime.

“This one was surprising to us,” Lansdowne said. “There was no financial plan in this. It was take it and use it.”

In 2008, an investigator at the credit union noticed a pattern among the transactions: Most of the people were similar ages, all of the withdrawals were made at Barona Casino and the checks looked alike, Deputy District Attorney Joan Stein said.

The credit union contacted the U.S. Secret Service, which started a 10-month investigation.

Authorities said Barona was used because the ATMs there, which are not owned by the credit union or the casino, allow much larger withdrawals.

The casino's surveillance system played an important role in the investigation, Edwin “Thorpe” Romero, chairman of the Barona Band of Mission Indians, said in a news release.

Some account holders admitted their role in the fraud, but gave agents incomplete names or nicknames to identify the ringleaders. The agents turned to San Diego police for help, and gang-unit detectives identified the leaders, Lansdowne said.

As law enforcement officers began interviewing people in December, the fraud stopped. Authorities also believe the equipment used to make the counterfeit checks was disposed of at that time.

On Tuesday, law enforcement officials spread out around the county to make arrests. Suspects were brought to the Qualcomm Stadium parking lot for processing.

Superior Court arraignments are scheduled to begin today. Account holders will probably be charged with fraud, a felony, which carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison. Because many of them have no criminal record, they will probably be sentenced, if convicted, to probation and ordered to pay back the credit union, said Stein, the prosecutor.

The implicated sailors are believed to be account holders.

The Naval Criminal Investigative Service was involved in the investigation.

The ringleaders face maximum sentences of about 17 years in prison, Stein said.

Staff writer Dana Littlefield contributed to this report.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Gang members attack former gang member
10:17 AM
By Chris Bone

Police arrested two suspected gang members Friday evening after they attacked a 23-year-old security guard at the Gilroy Premium Outlets in what sources said appeared to be revenge for his leaving the gang life.

Sgt. Jim Gillio would not confirm or deny if the victim from Morgan Hill, ever belonged to a criminal street gang, but sources suggested the young man was trying to turn his life around. Jerry Sarmientoluna, 21, and Nathaniel Gonzalez, 19, apparently weren't having it, though, when they approached the victim at his job just before 6 p.m. Friday and yelled gang slogans before attacking him with their hands and feet.

Witnesses called police while the incident occurred, and officers caught up with and arrested the suspects who fled on foot shortly thereafter. No weapons were used during the attack, which did not cause any serious injuries even though the victim his head against the cement, police said.

Sarmientoluna, who has been denied bail, was arrested for violating the terms of his parole, and police charged both the suspects from Gilroy with assault with a deadly weapon and conspiracy to commit a crime. Gonzalez also remains in jail with a $30,000 bail, and investigators are trying to add gang enhancement charges to both cases, which would stiffen the penalties the men face. The pair are scheduled to appear in court Wednesday, according to the Santa Clara County Department of Corrections.

A police report also indicated Gonzalez's occupation was "U.S. Military," but a soldier at the U.S. Army recruiting center on Westwood Drive said he could not look up service records, and spokespeople in a national military office could not be reached late Tuesday afternoon.

SouthLAnd does Gangs and the Military -- Two Gangs episode

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Fort Sill responds to 7NEWS questions about gang activity on post

Lawton_Does Fort Sill have a gang problem? That's a question 7NEWS has been asking post officials for the last 6 months. It all began back in November of last year when The Oklahoman newspaper quoted the Lawton Police Gang Task Force and a former City Council member, who all said there are gang members in the military assigned to Fort Sill.

Immediately after the stories were published, we started asking Fort Sill for a response.

This is what they had to say:

Questions from Channel 7 Reporter/Weekend Anchor Monte Brown and PAO responses.

1.) Can Fort Sill definitively say there are no active duty military members stationed on the post who claim gang affiliations or participate in criminal gang activity? How was the answer to this question determined?

A1. No, and we have never made such a claim. We said last November that no evidence of a Fort Sill soldier participating in gang activity has been presented to Fort Sill by civilian law enforcement. No Soldier has been arrested for gang activity or identified by police as a suspect in gang activity. This is still the case as far as we know. It doesn't mean the possibility doesn't exist.

2.) Why did Fort Sill authorize members of the post's criminal investigation division (or military police) to ride along with members of the Lawton Police Department's Gang Task Force following a story regarding Fort Sill gang members which was published in The Oklahoman in November?

A2. Fort Sill law enforcement personnel and commanders of units at Fort Sill are offered the opportunity to ride along with civilian police as a matter of community involvement and information. It helps them understand what the police are dealing with off post, and gives them a better idea of what information needs to be passed on to their Soldiers to keep them safe. ROTC and West Point cadets who visit this summer as part of their leadership training will also take part. This program has been in place between Fort Sill and the Lawton Police Department for years.

3.) Does Fort Sill consider pictures of soldiers "throwing gang signs" gang activity?

A3. If you are referring to pictures of anonymous individuals displaying such signs on social networking sites, the answer is no. Displaying such pictures is not a crime, and a screen name does not allow us to identify the individual, even if the person is wearing military-style clothing. You will see similar pictures displayed on social networking sites around many military installations. If a Soldier is positively identified in such a picture, then his chain of command can take action to investigate and, if needed, counsel the Soldier about his behavior. Individual cases of specifically identified Soldiers known to participate in gang activity may result in criminal or administrative action against the Soldier.

4.) If a soldier is arrested by Lawton Police for any crime considered "gang related" does Fort Sill consider that soldier to be affiliated with a gang and participating in gang activity?

A4. Not necessarily, but it does allow military authorities to investigate further and his chain of command to counsel the Soldier about his activities. If the Soldier is convicted of the crime, then his commander can take action to discharge him from the Army.

5.) Are soldiers who claim gang affiliations allowed to do so in the U.S. Army?

A5. Commanders have the inherent authority to prohibit any activity that detracts from a unit's good order and discipline or morale. Participation in an extremist organization, such as a gang, can result in criminal and administrative sanctions against the Soldier.

6.) How does Fort Sill and the U.S. Army deal with soldiers who are found to claim gang affiliations and participate in gang activity?

A6. Soldiers who participate in extremist activities detract from a unit's good order and discipline and morale. While commanders evaluate each case on an individual basis, Soldiers who do participate in extremist organizations are subject to punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and administrative sanctions, to include involuntary separation.

7.) Why has Fort Sill refused repeated requests from this station to talk on camera about this issue?

A7. We have declined all media requests for (on-camera) interviews because we didn't feel it was appropriate to engage on the topic, especially since it is not true to the best of our knowledge. It was a joint decision by the Fort Sill command and the City of Lawton mayor to not grant interviews and allow the police agencies concerned to develop their procedures and working relationships for the new gang task force. Since then we have gone through an exhaustive process to investigate the relationship between our police agencies and their information sharing procedures. After two months we re-evaluated the situation and were very pleased with the results. The indication from both sides is that the information sharing and relationship is greatly improved. Dealing with the gangs issue is a team effort between Lawton and Fort Sill, and from our standpoint both Fort Sill and the City of Lawton are pleased with the cooperation and information-sharing now taking place between our police agencies.

Posted: May 7, 2009 05:04 PM