By Mark Gutglueck
For a considerable number or perhaps even a majority of the Inland Empire’s residents, Mike Ramos appears to have bona fides as a dedicated crime fighter that are beyond reproach.
Since defeating incumbent district attorney Dennis Stout in 2002, Ramos has held political primacy in his post, not needing to face a challenger in the 2006 contest, handily defeating two hopefuls in 2010 and trouncing one of his own deputy prosecutors who tossed down the electoral gauntlet against him in 2014. In 2016 he was elected president of the National District Attorney’s Association, an organization of which he is now the chairman of the board. He previously served as president of the California District Attorneys Association. In 2014, he publicly announced he would run for California Attorney General in 2018, relenting only after Governor Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown appointed Xavier Becerra to serve out the two years remaining on former California Attorney General Kamala Harris’s term a year ago after she was elected to the U.S. Senate.
Throughout his tenure as district attorney, Ramos has promoted himself as a tough and vigilant prosecutor. He supports the death penalty, advocates on behalf of the victims of crimes and has crusaded against both gang violence and what he calls “human trafficking” which he uses as a euphemism for the forced labor or commercial sexual exploitation of women, i.e., prostitution. He steadfastly backs police agencies in their use of aggressive tactics or force, and has pressed forth with a handful of what he and his office have turned into high-profile political corruption prosecutions.
Despite that outward showing of hard-charging prosecutorial rectitude, information for several years has been circulating which suggests that Ramos has underworld ties. Within the last month, a strong indicator emerged that other elements of California’s law enforcement establishment have grown to recognize the degree to which Mike Ramos is mobbed up.
In November, when a specialized division of the California Attorney General’s Office undertook an operation in conjunction with several law enforcement agencies to strike a debilitating blow on the Mexican Mafia in Southern California, San Bernardino County law enforcement agencies were conspicuous by their absence in that wide-ranging gang takedown, even though that action extended into San Bernardino County. Pointedly, the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office was excluded from participating in the preparation of the search and arrest warrants preparatory to the raid.
Efforts by the Sentinel to obtain comment from Ramos and his highest ranking prosecutors with regard to the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office being cut out of the loop with regard to advance information on the operation and being shunted aside during its execution were met with no response.
It is commonly understood within law enforcement circles that the Mexican Mafia and its attendant drug cartel have established a foothold in San Bernardino County. A highly organized and now entrenched criminal organization originally formed in 1957 by 13 Hispanic Los Angeles street gang members led by Luis “Huero Buff” Flores who were incarcerated within what was then the California Youth Authority’s Deuel Vocational Institution, the Mexican Mafia was intended to protect its members within the state’s penitentiaries as well as to control through violence, fear and intimidation the black market activities within, and the black market support network outside, prison walls. Initially, nearly all members brought into the Mexican Mafia were incarcerated and were members of competing gangs on the outside. As the earliest members of the organization grew into adulthood and many of them were imprisoned in their adult years in prisons and detention facilities elsewhere in California, the gang proliferated and grew within those institutions, having spread by 1960 into every state prison in California. Over the next three generations, the Mexican Mafia has morphed into one of the more dominant criminal organizations outside a prison setting in California and several other states and the de facto controlling organization over virtually all Hispanic gangs in Southern California, in and outside prisons and jails. The Mexican Mafia has a ritualized membership and induction code which deprecates and discourages acting as an informant or in any way cooperating with legal authorities, eschews betraying, victimizing, disrespecting or stealing from fellow gang members, vilifies engaging in homosexuality, and forbids intruding on another member’s business territory. Members of the Mexican Mafia are committed to remain members for life and are required to carry out, under penalty of death, orders handed down from the leadership of the organization, including ones to execute the organization’s enemies or other members who have left the gang. Within the prison setting and sometimes outside of it, the Mexican Mafia is in a loose alliance with the Aryan Brotherhood, a white prison gang, as well as in a fierce and sometimes deadly rivalry with African-American gangs such as the Bloods, Crips and Black Guerrilla Family. Over the last several decades the Mexican Mafia has become a dominant element in the distribution of street drugs imported from or through Mexico, in particular heroin and cocaine and more recently methamphetamine as a consequence of the concerted U.S. policy which has effectively curtailed the availability of chemicals and lab equipment needed to produce the drug domestically. It has also formed loose affiliations with other gangs such as Sureño 13 and Familia Michoacana, as well as the Sinaloa Cartel. Thus, the Mexican Mafia is considered a major factor in the illicit drug trade in California and a significant factor in several other states.
Within San Bernardino County, the presence and activity of the Mexican Mafia is well documented in the cities of Rialto, Rancho Cucamonga, San Bernardino, Colton, Fontana, Chino and Victorville, as well as within the sheriff’s department’s detention facilities in Rancho Cucamonga, San Bernardino, Glen Helen and Adelanto.
Given the pervasiveness of the Mexican Mafia in Southern California, law enforcement agencies in San Bernardino County have had numerous brushes with its members and have made arrests, from which prosecutions have ensued. Yet, despite the proliferation of the Mexican Mafia in San Bernardino County and the frequency and degree to which the gang’s lower-ranking functionaries are arrested by police agencies, the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office’s performance with regard to effective prosecutions of the gang and its high-ranking and most powerful members in comparison to prosecutors in surrounding jurisdictions is lackluster at best.
There have been a few exceptions that proved that rule, the most notable being the effort that began in 2006 against the Mexican Mafia-affiliated East Side Victoria Gang in Victorville after a rising tide of violence and drug activity drove local officials to seek an injunction against the gang. That was followed up by the sheriff’s department’s energetic investigation of East Side Victoria, leading to two 2009 indictments. The matter took several years to prosecute, with most of the court action being shepherded through the process by deputy district attorney Britt Imes. East Side Victoria’s ties to the Mexican Mafia consisted of its members having pledged allegiance, and conveying money, to the larger organization in return for protection when its members were jailed or imprisoned. In 2015 the matter drew to a close with the last of 61 guilty pleas from East Side Victoria Gang members, including its already imprisoned founder, Fred “The Joker” Archuleta, as well as George “Rascal” DeGraw, who succeeded Archuleta in his absence and ran the gang as a local syndicate based upon enforcement assistance from the Mexican Mafia, along with Joel “The Bouncer” Pompa, an enforcer and tax collector for the Mexican Mafia.
Nevertheless, with only a few notable exceptions, the higher ranking members of the Mexican Mafia have largely avoided prosecution in San Bernardino County, and have been permitted by the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office to take refuge, both physically and legally, on the grounds of the San Manuel Indian Reservation in the San Bernardino Mountain foothills above Highland.
The case which first underscored the degree to which the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office has been compromised by the Mexican Mafia grew out of a criminal conspiracy involving drug distribution, murder, murder for hire and attempted murder that came to light during a joint San Bernardino Police/DEA investigation in 2006. Investigators, while focusing on drug distribution activity by members of the Mexican Mafia, identified Salvador “Toro” Hernandez, Alfred Hernandez, Eric Barajas, Stacy Cheyenne Barajas-Nunez, Erlino Honesto, Geahetta Amaya and Arturo Ortiz as being involved in drug dealing and attendant crimes. Investigators had grounds to believe that the drug distribution activity was being coordinated out of the Brass Key, a Highland Bar. The Brass Key was owned by Greg Duro, the son of one-time San Manuel Tribal Chairman Henry Duro. Greg Duro had hired Leonard Epps to serve as a bartender and manager of the Brass Key. A frequent patron at the bar was James Seay, the brother of former San Diego Chargers football player Mark Seay. James Seay, it seemed, came to recognize or in some way learned about the drug distribution activity taking place out of the Brass Key. Seay had also developed an acquaintance, bordering on a friendship, with Epps. James Seay was shot and wounded in front of The Brass Key on May 17, 2004. San Manuel tribal member Robert Vincent Martinez III, who was suspected of belonging to the Mexican Mafia, was charged in the case, but the charges were later dismissed. Seay in May 2005 sued Martinez over his injuries and lost wages. Though Martinez initially moved to contest the suit through his attorney, Trent Copeland, the case settled for in excess of $500,000. Just days later, Seay was fatally shot in front of his mother’s house in San Bernardino, an act bearing all the hallmarks of a Mexican Mafia hit. The killing remains unsolved.
At that point, members of the Mexican Mafia involved in the drug trafficking operation based out of the Brass Key, including siblings Erik and Stacy Cheyenne Barajas-Nunez, grew concerned that Epps represented a threat to their activity because he had been close to Seay and knew, on the basis of his role at the Brass Key, details relating to the drug distribution network. A botched attempt on Epps’ life was made, and after its failure, a contract that had been taken out on Epps remained in play. Federal drug agents learned of the murder plot against Epps in 2006 during their joint investigation with the San Bernardino Police Department into the Mexican Mafia’s drug distribution activity. The agents uncovered airtight evidence that Erik and Stacy Barajas were conspiring with Salvador Hernandez and his brother, Alfred Hernandez, to have Epps killed.
As a consequence of the utter depth of the criminal enterprises in which they were involved and the sheer magnitude of proof federal agents had accumulated against them, not to mention the widespread attention their activity generated among federal, state and local authorities and prosecutors, Salvador and Alfred Hernandez, for their involvement in the planned assassination of Epps along with dozens of other overt criminal acts, were imprisoned. More than a decade later, Salvador “Toro” Hernandez is the head of the Mexican Mafia, running its empire from a prison cell.
The case against Barajas and Barajas-Nunez was handed off to the local prosecutor, San Bernardino County District Attorney Mike Ramos. Because the basis of the case against Stacy Barajas-Nunez and her brother had been laid by federal agents, Ramos did not have the option of dispensing with the matter without a prosecution, as the case involved layers of drug distribution activity and indisputable evidence of the murder-for-hire scheme. Proof that Barajas and Barajas-Nunez had arranged for the Hernandez brothers to set up the killing of Epps was obtained when federal officials served search warrants on several San Manuel Reservation homes, including those of Barajas and Barajas-Nunez. Ultimately, Ramos accepted a plea agreement from both. Barajas-Nunez pleaded guilty to participating in the murder-for-hire scheme and to two drug charges. Her brother pleaded guilty to an assault with a deadly weapon charge in connection with the murder-for-hire scheme. The deal Ramos approved allowed them to avoid any jail time and remain on the reservation and be monitored electronically. Barajas-Nunez agreed to a 365-day home detention sentence and her brother agreed to 180 days of home sentencing.
The outcome of the case against Erik Barajas and his sister served as the first open indication that Mike Ramos might be militating on behalf of the Mexican Mafia, with multiple public and media notations of the lenient treatment the pair had received.
As a result of the attempt on his life and the injuries he sustained, Epps, represented by attorney Frank Peterson, filed a civil suit against Barajas-Nunez and Barajas. Epps and Peterson prevailed in that suit and a jury awarded Epps $6.577 million in compensatory and punitive damages. Epps is still a target for Mexican Mafia executioners and has had to assume a new identity and relocate himself and his family to a secure location. Meanwhile, Barajas and Barajas-Nunez appealed the judgment against them, and next week, on December 11, Petersen is due to appear in appellate court in San Diego for oral arguments relating to that appeal.
In the course of litigating the matter, Peterson, a former sheriff’s detective turned attorney, developed a wealth of information relating to the Mexican Mafia’s penetration of San Bernardino County. Contained within that evidence file which Peterson intended to present at trial was the account of a witness who served as a courier between the Mexican Mafia and members of the San Manuel Indian Tribe in conjunction with payments and activity relating to the drug distribution network. That witness, known by the code name “Rico Doe,” said that Mike Ramos was handed, during a designated rendezvous at the Pechanga Casino in Temecula, a package containing a substantial amount of cash that originated from the Mexican Mafia’s involvement in narcotics distribution activity. According to Rico Doe, the money was provided to Ramos as part of an arrangement to insulate members of the Mexican Mafia and San Manuel tribal members from prosecution. The witness hinted at other occasions when money was provided to the district attorney.
Ultimately, that information was not presented in court, as the judge hearing the case, Michael A. Smith, deemed it irrelevant to Epps’ claims against the Barajas siblings. During the course of the trial, much of the evidence and information presented in court was not publicly available because of a gag order that had been imposed on Epps and Peterson at the request of the defense during the proceedings. Since the trial has concluded, information accrued by Peterson in preparation to put on Epps’ case which explores the degree to which the Mexican Mafia has wrapped its tentacles around public officials in San Bernardino County has surfaced.
In attempting to deflect early questions about why the Mexican Mafia had thrived within his jurisdiction under his watch and had been permitted to retreat to a safe haven on the San Manuel Indian Reservation from which it was operating with seeming impunity and immunity, Mike Ramos and his spokespeople engaged in something of a faux pas by claiming that the district attorney’s office did not have investigative or prosecutorial authority on the reservation, which, under federal law, is deemed sovereign Indian land beyond the reach of state or local authorities. That assertion rang hollow, however, since the tribe waived that status in June 2010 by entering into an arrangement with the county approved by the board of supervisors under which the tribe agreed to pay the district attorney’s office $1,048,909 to prosecute criminal cases originating on the reservation and at the San Manuel Casino located on reservation grounds and operated by the tribe over the three years ending June 30, 2013. In 2013, the tribe and the county extended that contract for three years, with the tribe agreeing to pay the county $1,111,403 for the three years of prosecutorial service ending on June 30, 2016. In 2016, the tribe and the county again extended the arrangement, with the tribe providing the county $1,208,003 for continued prosecutorial and investigative services from July 1, 2016 through to June 30, 2019.
This year, 2017, there were two tacit but unmistakable indications that elements within the California law enforcement establishment have grown to recognize that the Mexican Mafia considers San Bernardino County a safe haven from which it can operate and that it may be unwise to involve the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office in operations against the Mexican Mafia or entrust it with advance information pertaining to such operations to be carried out by other agencies.
On January 12, 2017, the Fontana Police Department, the California Attorney General’s Bureau of Investigation, and the California Highway Patrol, in an effort involving more than 300 law enforcement officers, executed “Operation Bad Blood,” which had been in the planning stages for weeks and targeted two gangs in Fontana, the South Fontana Gang and the Mexican Mafia. In the days in advance of the massive set of raids, 32 suspected gang members had been quietly taken into custody. On January 12, another 35 people were arrested and several caches of firearms, ammunition, methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin and prescription medications were seized.
The San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office was not involved in the preparation of the search and arrest warrants prepared for Operation Bad Blood. Nor was Mike Ramos or his office informed ahead of time that the action was to take place.
Last month, on November 9, a multi-agency task force led by the California Attorney General’s Office and its special operations unit carried out a series of raids targeting the Mexican Mafia and its related drug cartel, arresting 47 people, 44 of whom were in Southern California and two of whom were in San Bernardino County, as well as three others in Colorado and Missouri. In the course of those raids, 12 pounds of methamphetamine, three pounds of heroin, 120 pounds of marijuana and 60 pounds of cocaine were seized, along with a substantial number of firearms.
The arrest warrants around which these operations revolved were prepared by the California Attorney General’s Office, the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office and the Orange County District Attorney’s Office. San Bernardino County agencies were conspicuous by their absence in these operations, and it does not appear that the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office was given a heads up with regard to them before they were under way.
Multiple efforts by the Sentinel to engage Mike Ramos in a dialogue with regard to his office’s prosecutorial history relating to the Mexican Mafia, the proliferation of Mexican Mafia activity in San Bernardino County and his personal relationship to Salvador Hernandez, including the report of his having received money from a Mexican Mafia courier, were unsuccessful. He did not return phone calls, nor did he agree to an in-person interview when the Sentinel came to his office on December 7. Likewise, the district attorney’s office’s official spokesman, Christopher Lee, did not respond to emails with a set of questions relating to the district attorney’s office’s history with, stance toward and prosecutorial track record with regard to the Mexican Mafia, and Mike Ramos’s personal relationship to that organization’s principals.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra declined to discuss information his office has gathered relating to Ramos’s connections to the Mexican Mafia.
By Mark Gutglueck