NEW PORT RICHEY — These eight men, all said to be members of the Valentine Bloods street gang, are young — most in their early 20s, the eldest 29. One, accused of shattering a man's face, turned 18 in June.
Yet as a group, they have been arrested more than 120 times. They've been charged with 64 felonies and been convicted of 20. Authorities say these men are violent, trafficking drugs, guns and fear throughout the New Port Richey area.
They get arrested, post bail and then commit new crimes, officials say.
This week a coalition of local and federal agencies put a stop to it. All eight men were indicted on numerous federal drug and firearms charges. Two were already in jail on other charges. Three were arrested in raids at 6 a.m. Tuesday.
Three others are wanted fugitives.
"You don't want the federal government after you," said Virginia O'Brien, special agent in charge with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, at a Wednesday afternoon news conference at the Pasco County Sheriff's Office.
Federal charges carry more prison time than state ones. If convicted, the minimum sentence they could receive is five years. The most is life behind bars.
"We want the most bang for our buck," O'Brien said of charging the men under federal statutes.
The investigation on the Valentine Bloods began a year and a half ago. It was done through a U.S. Department of Justice program called Project Safe Neighborhoods Comprehensive Anti-Gang Initiative, which pulls local, state and federal agencies together with the goal of prosecuting gang members — and working with young people to prevent them from joining in the first place.
Those involved in this case were the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, the ATF and the New Port Richey Police Department.
The men who were indicted this week all live around the New Port Richey area.
The alleged leader, David Martin "Blink" Santiago, 28, and Paul David Morman III, 18, were already at the county jail. They were arrested in December on charges they beat a man so viciously that they knocked him out and fractured his face. Santiago had posted bail, only to be arrested last month on charges he shot a man outside a nightclub, the bullet just grazing the man's leg.
Darko Kojic, 20, Alberto "Red" Camacho, 22 and Alfonzo Lee "Joe Boy" Joe, 24, were arrested early Tuesday. Kojic's indictment says that in 2007, he sold cocaine within 1,000 feet of Gulf Middle School in New Port Richey and Miss Betty's Child Care in Port Richey.
Andrew Montalvo, 23, Harold Jason "Kiss" Vazquez Jr., 27, and Antonio Brown, 29, are wanted fugitives.
The ATF is offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of each suspect. Anyone with information is urged to call the ATF's toll-free hot line, 1-800-283-4867.
"Oh, we'll find them," Pasco County Sheriff Bob White said at the news conference. "No two ways about that. It's just a matter of time."
He said the indictments send a message to other "would-be gang-bangers."
"We are not going to put up with it," White said.
Martin Rickus, chief of the New Port Richey Police, echoed that notion.
"I'm very happy to have these guys in custody," said Rickus, who said that there might be about 50 to 60 core members of the Valentine Bloods in New Port Richey. He said, as an offshoot of these indictments, that there will be more arrests soon.
"We are on it," he said.
White said the federal government has better sentencing guidelines.
"These are significant criminals, charged with significant crimes," he said. "And they will go away for a significant amount of time."
Reach Erin Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6229.