By Greg Risling
SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. — Twelve members of the Vagos motorcycle club were arrested and more than 300 weapons seized in raids across seven Southern California counties, in the latest attempt to dismantle what authorities say is a criminal enterprise.
In all, 37 people have been arrested for a variety of drug-related crimes as part of a 18-month investigation led by the California Department of Justice. More than 40 pounds of cocaine and eight pounds of methamphetamine were seized along with a rocket launcher.
Authorities served 52 search warrants on Thursday at locations stretching from Santa Barbara to Imperial counties. Among those arrested was Andrew Lozano, 35, of Fontana, who was led out of his one-story home wearing only a towel when agents busted down his door.
Authorities combed through a large lot behind the home, essentially a junkyard filled with construction equipment, truck trailers and a pontoon boat. A dummy whose face was covered with a black hood and a noose around its neck hung from a eucalyptus tree. A Harley Davidson emblazoned with flames painted green — the Vagos' chosen color — was parked nearby.
Lozano was charged with possession of body armor with a gang enhancement. If convicted, he faces up to three years in prison.
Authorities said some members of the gang, which was founded in the 1960s and has about 500 members worldwide, were involved in a large-scale drug distribution ring. Members would threaten, intimidate or use violence to protect their interests, they said.
"Often times, Vagos members were armed and they don't hesitate to use their weapons," said David King, a senior special agent in charge with the department.
Most recently, a Vagos member from Northern California was arrested in connection with the Sept. 23 slaying of Jeffrey "Jethro" Pettigrew, president of the San Jose chapter of the rival Hells Angels, during a shootout at a Nevada casino. Two Vagos members also were wounded in the melee, and a third was shot in the stomach the next morning by a gunman in a passing car.
Forty to 50 state indictments were expected as a result of the investigation dubbed "Operation Simple Green." Among the crimes authorities uncovered are a solicitation for murder they said they couldn't disclose details about, as well as the rape of a woman by four Vagos members at a Los Alamitos bar in March. No arrests have been made in either case.
The raids were the latest effort to dismantle what officials have labeled an outlaw gang, whose patch includes the Norse god of mischief Loki. Vagos is a Spanish name that means "traveling gypsy" or "a street-wise person that's always up to something." It also has chapters in Australia, Canada and Nicaragua.
Vagos leaders in the past have said their group is a social club, not a criminal enterprise, and have complained of being repeatedly targeted by law enforcement.
At a command center, law enforcement agents met up to tally the day's results. At one point, two vehicles carrying about 100 rifles and other weapons were unloaded to be placed into evidence. All the guns were found at one house in Alhambra, authorities said.
Five years ago, federal, state and local authorities conducted a similar operation and arrested more than two dozen Vagos members, including seven chapter presidents. In September 2004, a state investigation involving the gang led to the arrests of 26 people and the seizure of more than $125,000 in cash, drugs and guns.
In October 1998, a two-year undercover investigation of the gang resulted in the arrests of more than a dozen people for alleged kidnapping, drug and weapons crimes.
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Copyright 2011 Associated Press