Predawn Calif. gang sweep by FBI, police follows 2-year investigation

Jim Herron Zamora, Chronicle Staff Writer

Copyright 2006 The Chronicle Publishing Co.
All Rights Reserved

Scores of FBI agents and local police arrested nine members of a notorious street gang Tuesday during simultaneous raids in Contra Costa County in what authorities called a strike intended to help bring down the gang.

The gang known as the Project Trojans has controlled much of the drug trafficking within North Richmond since the 1980s and has been the source of much of the violence plaguing the community, according to police.

"Our ultimate goal is to cut down on the violence," said Lt. Kitty Parker of the Contra Costa County Sheriff's Office. "The gang controls the drugs, and therefore they control who gets shot. If you can break the gang and stop the drug sales, you will see a lot less violence."

But some residents questioned that assertion, noting the arrests might incite violence as rivals compete to fill the void.

"Somebody else is going to want to keep selling dope here, and the toughest one will win," said Marcus, a young man standing on a corner in North Richmond, who would give only his first name for fear of retribution from gang members. "It's not going to change unless you take the profits out of the drug market."

All of the men arrested face charges of conspiracy to distribute narcotics. None of them entered pleas when they were arraigned Tuesday afternoon before U.S. Magistrate Bernard Zimmerman.

Tuesday's predawn raids on 14 homes capped a two-year investigation in which local investigators with extensive knowledge of the Project Trojans -- the target of numerous probes over the years -- worked alongside federal investigators who often can devote more time and resources to an investigation.

Most of the raided homes were in Richmond and North Richmond, and others were in Hercules, Vallejo and Antioch.

"This was really a good marriage between us and the FBI," Parker said. "We have the knowledge. We have the street savvy. They have the resources and the technical folks to really do this right."

The raids began at 4:30 a.m. with a briefing in the parking lot of the Miller/Knox Regional Shoreline park, where more than 100 federal agents gathered in the dark and rain.

"This weather is awful, but it helps us," joked Richard Davis, an FBI special agent who has spent more than a year on the case. "No one else will be out but us. That makes things easier."

SWAT teams from Sacramento and Los Angeles joined local authorities in the raids, and the bust at 412 W. Grove Ave. in North Richmond was among the more complicated operations. Officers had to cut through a chain-link fence and make their way past pit bulls -- so they kept fire extinguishers handy in case they had to repel the dogs.

"We got lucky -- the dogs were all chained up," said Special Agent Jeff Harp, who supervised the SWAT team. "They were noisy, but they didn't slow us down."

The SWAT teams, wearing helmets and full body armor, moved in quickly, searched the homes and whisked away the targeted suspects, Harp said.

Court records showed the FBI, local sheriff's deputies and the state Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement used wiretaps and undercover surveillance between October and January to track several major players in North Richmond's drug trade. Investigators spent months determining the structure of the gang and identifying its leaders.

Much of the investigation was centered on the gang's alleged ring leaders, Bobby Ray Williams, 34, and Michael Green Johnson, 31, court documents showed.

"In particular, Williams and Johnson distribute narcotics at wholesale prices to others either for further distribution to other wholesalers or for distribution to the end users at the retail or 'street' level," Special Agent Davis wrote in an affidavit.

Jose Carlos Batriz, 34, who is accused of supplying the Trojans with drugs, was arrested at his home in Antioch.

Others arrested Tuesday include Eddie Sherman Thomas, 30, Sherman Gay, 43, Mark Gibson, 24, Martin Eugene Roberts, 42, Stephen Louis Montgomery, 39 and Tanya Walton, 19.

Suspects who remain at large include Leon Wilson, 41, Demetriz Antoine Lewis, 35, Antoine Demetrius Smith, 35, Carl Michael Gatlin, 35, Terrance Tyrice Thomas, 26, and Leonard Dan Gordon, 32.

Authorities said all the suspects except Batriz are originally from the same area of North Richmond. It was unclear where they live now.

Court records indicate the defendants went to great lengths to hide where they lived by using cars and cell phones registered in the names of friends or relatives.

Defense attorneys said the arrests came as a surprise to the defendants and their families.

"They were treated like terrorists," said Eric Babcock, who represents Gay. "They were arrested this morning and taken into court on charges that were only unsealed once they appeared."

Investigators said that, although the gang has not been dismantled, the arrests have cut into its leadership and could bring some measure of peace to North Richmond, an unincorporated community of 4,000 people.

The gang has nearly 300 members and associates in North Richmond and surrounding communities, authorities said.

The gang, also called PJT, largely controls the cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine available in North Richmond, a community with a homicide rate six times greater than the rest of Contra Costa County, officials said. Parker, of the sheriff's office, said there have been three killings there so far this year.

Investigators believe nearly 90 percent of the homicides and attempted killings between 1991 and 2004 were related to the Project Trojans. In recent years, North Richmond has averaged about one killing a year per thousand residents, a rate more than twice as high as Oakland.

Most residents interviewed Tuesday on the streets of North Richmond shared the hope the arrests would ease crime, but some speculated that younger drug dealers would emerge to fill the void left by the arrests -- and feud with rivals until things shake out.

"It's been getting a little better here. You see new homes and some new people who won't put up with all this foolishness," said Jethro Carr, 63, who has spent 37 years in the community. "But you can paint your house and pick up all the trash you want, but it doesn't help if some guy wants to sell dope in front of your house." 

Full story: Predawn Calif. gang sweep by FBI, police follows 2-year investigation

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