Anyone who has followed the national news has at some point heard a story involving a Sureno gang. More often than not, the national attention is focused on one of a very few Sureno gangs who have achieved notoriety or, in some cases, legendary status that is not always deserved.
But there are many Sureno gangs — hundreds even — about whom the general public remains blissfully unaware.
A few of these gangs have achieved their 15-minutes of fame through the actions of a single member. This was the case for one such Sureno gang when, with a smile on his face, 35-year-old Timothy Joseph McGhee was led out of a Los Angeles courtroom after being sentenced to death in 2009.
Not a Stereotypical Sureno
As he did so, McGhee showed no remorse for the three murders for which he had been convicted. Nor did he seem remorseful for the attempted murders of two Los Angeles Police Officers for which he had also been convicted, or any of the several murders police knew he was responsible for but could not yet convict him.
As a Caucasian of Scottish and Mexican descent, McGhee was not a stereotypical Sureno gang member. Nonetheless, he was a member of the generally Chicano Toonerville 13 gang from the Atwater Village area of Northeastern Los Angeles. But it was not his race alone that made McGhee a stand-out in his gang.
The Toonerville 13 gang — also known as Toonerville Rifa and TVR — has been in existence since the 1950s. The gang took their name from a television show called the Toonerville Trolleys, which was based around a trolley that traveled through the center of town.
Since train tracks went through the center of their Varrio and the sound of trains were frequently heard in the area, the name seemed fitting to the young founders.
Although the gang is multi-generational and has more than 400 members, Toonerville has always been considered relatively small and insignificant in the grand scheme of Los Angeles County Sureno gangs.
Unlike a few who have representation from coast to coast — with membership reaching the tens of thousands by some accounts — Toonerville is generally found only in Northeastern Los Angeles, the neighboring city of Glendale, and a few nearby municipalities.
While Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street were gaining nationwide recognition with law enforcement and the media, Toonerville was not. They seemed to be confined to their neighborhoods and out of the public eye.
Then, Timothy McGhee changed everything.
Truly, A Life of Crime
McGhee’s descent into a life of crime was neither sudden nor surprising. He earned his first prison stay in 1994 (at the age of 18) for assaulting a police officer in San Bernardino County.
He received a four-year prison sentence for the assault and served three years of his sentence before being released in 1997. Later that year, McGhee was sent back to prison on a parole violation and was not released again until March 1999. True to form, McGhee was again returned to prison for a parole violation in February 2000, serving two months before being released.
By the summer of 2000, at only 26, McGhee had already spent a quarter of his life in prison. But police suspected that in what little time he spent outside of the California Department of Corrections, his crimes were not merely limited to parole violations.
Los Angeles Police detectives believe that during McGhee’s few months as a free man in 1997, he murdered a member of the rival Rascals gang — Ryan Martin — who was reportedly shot more than 25 times.
In October 1999, McGhee again became the focus of a homicide investigation, this time being linked to the murder of Dwayne Dupree, a bodyguard for rap artist Ricardo “Kurupt” Brown.
According to police reports, Dupree and others were gathered outside Echo Sounds Music Studio after a recording session when two gunmen approached and opened fire, killing Dupree and wounding two others. Although Dupree’s murder was originally thought to be the result of a dispute between rap artists, information eventually led detectives to suspect McGhee.
Big Game in Los Angeles
Following that, the murders and violent crimes for which he was suspected began adding up at a horrifying rate. By 2000, McGhee — by then considered to be the leader of the Toonerville 13 gang — would take fellow gang members hunting in rival gang neighborhoods.
According to LAPD Detective Andrew Teague, when McGhee and his subordinates went into rival gang territories “it’s like a hunter going into a big-game preserve” (Los Angeles Times, 2003).
In June 2000, only a few months out of prison, McGhee again took his fellow Toonerville gangsters hunting in rival territory, finding 16-year-old Ryan Gonzales coming home from a party. Gonzales, a member of the Rascals gang, had no connection with McGhee other than a common nickname (Huero).
And as if he needed a reason to continue satisfying his blood lust, McGhee reportedly told others he had killed Gonzales because the area wasn’t big enough for two people with the same nickname.
Not limiting his murders solely to rival gang members, in September of the same year McGhee allegedly shot and killed Marty Gregory Roybal, a 17-year-old high school student who was drawing a picture at the Los Angeles River.
He then turned his gun on 33-year-old David Lamont Martin, a homeless man McGhee believed had witnessed the shooting. Reminiscent of a scene from a low-budget movie, McGhee allegedly turned to his fellow Toonerville member while still standing over Martin’s body and commented without emotion that he was hungry and wanted to go get something to eat.
During his reign over Atwater Village, McGhee reportedly ran his gang like a paramilitary organization; making members take part in group exercise sessions and target practice.
He also introduced Toonerville to tactical training and insisted that armed sentries be posted along the main thoroughfares into his territory with cell phones or radios to alert him of any suspicious activity.
His killings, too, became more frequent and less selective. In the summer and fall of 2001, McGhee allegedly took part in the killings of several people including a man from Pomona who reportedly supported himself by robbing drug dealers, a laborer who McGhee deemed an unwanted stranger, a woman he accused of reporting his family members to the police for drug dealing, and a mother of two who happened to be the first person he saw in rival territory.
He also planned and executed the military-style ambush of two Los Angeles Police officers, luring them into an area where Toonerville members were waiting to open fire. Both officers survived the attack.
Catching America’s Most Wanted
Before he could be arrested, Timothy McGhee went into hiding and eventually fled California. During the ensuing manhunt, McGhee and the Toonerville 13 gang enjoyed more than their 15 minutes of fame nationwide. The United States Marshall Service declared McGhee as one of the 15 most wanted fugitives in the country.
The Los Angeles Police Department issued a press statement comparing McGhee to Charles Manson, while noting the distinctions that Manson had killed only seven people — as opposed to McGhee’s 12 or more known victims. McGhee and his gang were also featured in an episode of America’s Most Wanted, which reenacted several of his crimes as well as Toonerville’s military-like exercise sessions.
Rewards were offered for McGhee as well; at least $50,000 for information leading to arrest of the man dubbed by the media as the “Monster of Atwater Village.”
Finally, in February 2003, McGhee was captured in Bullhead City, Arizona, during a joint operation with BCPD, LAPD, and federal law enforcement.
McGhee was extradited back to Southern California where he was ultimately convicted of three murders and deemed responsible for several others with which he was not convicted. In January 2009, McGhee was sentenced to death for his crimes by Superior Court Judge Robert Perry, who stated during sentencing that McGhee seemed to think killing was “some kind of perverse sport, as if he was hunting human game.”
He is currently on California’s death row at San Quentin State Prison with no set execution date. During his incarceration, he has been involved in prison riots and violent attacks on staff members.
He has also never shown any remorse for his crimes — for taking the lives of at least a dozen people and injuring many more. Although his actions briefly placed Toonerville 13 into the national spotlight, they have since returned to less significant status among the numerous Sureno gangs of Southern California.