More that a dozen alleged gang members were arrested in connection with 5,000 residential burglaries across five Southern California counties, authorities said Friday.
"Operation Money Bags" spanned more than three years and culminated early Friday morning with raids at 28 locations, most in South Los Angeles, according to the Torrance Police Department. The raids included more than 400 officers from 18 agencies including the FBI.
Police said the gang members targeted Friday may have been involved in as many as 125 to 150 crimes each. Gang-related sentencing laws could add years to their sentences, Sgt. Paul Kranke told the Daily Breeze.
"We have so far 13 arrests today," Kranke told the Daily Breeze early Friday. "We recovered seven firearms and various amounts of narcotics and U.S. currency."
Kranke said no problems occurred while authorities served the search warrants, and that no force was needed.
Authorities targeted locations they believed were connected to members of the East Coast Crips gang that police believe are responsible for home burglaries in Torrance, and other cities in the South Bay area. The members were also linked to burglaries in Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties.
Investigators said the gang leaders developed an organized burglary plan, under which burglars would set out with a goal of finding $5,000 and a gun, and at times would do so four or five days a week.
Two arrests were also made earlier in the week, police said. Additional arrests were made during the multiyear investigation, some of which were made on other charges.
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Police said they have linked over 53 gang members to the burglaries.
"We were looking for ways to solve our residential burglary problem," Kranke said. "This is our long-term plan we came up with."
Police officers believe a sharp increase in residential burglaries started when efforts to relieve overcrowded prisons also prompted shorter sentences for nonviolent crime offenders, reported the Daily Breeze. Due to this so-called prison "realignment" that started five years ago, also known as Assembly Bill 109, burglars are able to return to the streets sooner and are able to commit additional crimes.
"It wasn't uncommon for us to make an arrest on an individual, that had just been arrested the week before for the same thing and he was already out," Kranke said. "And that's when it gets frustrating."
Investigators also believe the gang members may have contributed in a recent uptick in burglaries of homes on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
Torrance police first noticed an increase in burglaries in 2012. After some arrests, police administrators had the department’s gang unit join the burglary investigations team after they found that many thieves were also East Coast Crips gang members.
Gang leaders targeted specific neighborhoods in the suburbs, and would avoid drawing attention to themselves by dressing professionally, and by renting high-end cars, reported the Daily Breeze. Burglars would use "white-pages" apps on their cell phones so they could call homes and check if residents were home, and would check the names of residents on the streets they were targeting.
Members would also look for shoes on porches, which they believed signified homes belonging to Asian families, who they thought kept money in their homes, police said.
While some burglars kept stolen goods and others sold what they stole, some took to social media to post pictures of themselves with stolen money — even posting recordings of when they committed the crime, police said.
Although the posts became a recruiting tool for new gang members, detectives and investigators used the posts to connect the individual burglaries to the larger group, since the social media posts showed the burglaries benefited the East Coast Crips specifically. By proving that connection, police may be able to keep the burglars in prison longer.
"They are going to be sentenced and assigned to state prison as opposed to being in a revolving door," one of the officers told the Daily Breeze.
Gang enhancement charges are often used in murder prosecutions in which a crime was committed for a gang's benefit. The District Attorney’s Office approved expanding gang enhancement charges to include burglaries.
In addition to search warrants served Friday, authorities searched 50 inmates' prison cells across the state, who they believe may have helped direct burglaries from prison with illegal cell phones, or may have been benefiting from proceeds delivered to them from the burglaries.
Police also believe the gang members are responsible for burglaries committed in Alameda County in the Bay area, and in Washington and Colorado, sometimes only because members travelled to those areas.
Police said they were still looking for a few people linked to the crimes.