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cousinkix1953
05-17-2009, 3:19 PM
'Operation Money Train': Drugs, guns and stolen cars recovered in undercover probe

By Jennifer Squires | Sentinel staff

Posted: 05/16/2009 01:30:27 AM PDT

WATSONVILLE -- More than 40 people, many of them suspected gang members, were behind bars Friday night after local, state and federal officers ended an 11-month undercover operation that targeted stolen cars, gun sales and drug deals.

The multi-agency investigation dubbed "Operation Money Train" led to arrest warrants for 52 suspects operating in and around Salinas and Gilroy, authorities said. Many have ties to Santa Cruz County.

"There's no border," said Rich Westphal, commander of the Santa Cruz County Anti-Crime Team. "Whoever has the money or whoever's paying the gang taxes, they'll go where they go."

About 12-15 of the suspects have ties to Santa Cruz County and approximately a half-dozen of them are county residents, according to Westphal, whose agents participated in the investigation. Others are known to local law enforcement even though they live elsewhere.

The undercover operation aimed to curtail car thefts and drug distribution. At least three of the men arrested are considered mid-level to major meth distributors, according to Westphal. The others facing drug charges are street-level dealers.

"I think right now everybody's going to be hanging low," Westphal said. "Hopefully in terms of the auto theft and the burglaries that should hopefully subside for a while."

The undercover operation ran out of a phony auto shop police set up in Prunedale in June. Investigators used "undercover savvy" to become known, then relied on word of mouth to attract "customers," Westphal said. For months, agents from a host of police agencies including Watsonville police staffed the shop, which was so believable that neighbors reported its shady dealings to authorities.

"We didn't have a sign. We didn't have legitimate customers. People like you and I never brought a car in there to get repaired," Westphal said. "Crooks would bring their cars there. They'd bring their drugs there. They'd bring their guns there."

Vehicles stolen from Merced, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and Monterey counties ended up at the shop.

"They weren't just yard cars," said Westphal, explaining the shop purchased Hondas, Acuras, Suzukis, Chevy full-size trucks and even a Hummer. "Some of them were pretty high-end."

Other vehicles were "owner give-ups," a type of insurance fraud where the car is resold, then reported stolen so insurance money can be collected, according to Westphal. All told, the 57 vehicles acquired by the shop were worth upward of $500,000, authorities said.

Suspects sold stolen property, such as catalytic converters and people's personal identifying information, to the shop. Nearly 30 guns also came in: assault rifles, semiautomatic handguns, shotguns, hunting-style rifles with scopes and revolvers, according to Westphal. A lot of them were stolen.

During the investigation, undercover officers bought or recovered methamphetamine, heroine and cocaine worth more than $1.4 million on the street.

On Friday, officers raided at least two locations in Salinas about 7 a.m. in connection with the investigation. By Friday evening, at least 40 of the suspects were in custody, according to Westphal.

About a dozen of those were already incarcerated for other, unrelated charges. Westphal said some of those suspects, when they were busted, tried to turn in the shop for its criminal activity so they could get a deal.

Approximately 15 of the suspects will be charged federally for crimes such as felons in possession of a firearm, illegal alien in possession of a firearm, possession of an unregistered firearm and the illegal sales of narcotics substances. The state charges are predominantly drug and possession of stolen vehicle allegations.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Monterey County Sheriff, Salinas police, FBI, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and agencies from Santa Cruz County participated in the operation.

"Operation Money Train is an example of how successful cooperation between law enforcement agencies works to disrupt the criminals who disrupt the order of our communities and negatively impact the lives of many residents," Watsonville Police Chief Terry Medina said. "While incarcerated, they will no longer victimize the people we serve."
It's about time that these federal gun control laws intended for the criminals were enforced instead harassing law abiding citizen with stupid regulations. Nice to see ICE involved too; because they don't recognize those gang infested sanctuary cities full of illegal aliens committing serious crimes...