NEW PORT RICHEY — A long-term investigation into a loose band of Dade City area outlaws has sent dozens to jail and recovered thousands of dollars in drugs and stolen weapons, Sheriff Bob White said Thursday.
Pasco deputies, Dade City police officers and federal agents have since 2009 targeted stash houses, trafficking routes and associates of what is known as the Lock Street Gang, operating across east Pasco. Among the group's assets, now seized: $100,000 in stolen jewelry; $20,000 in revolvers, shotguns and rifles; and more than a pound each of cocaine and methamphetamine.
Yet unlike more organized street gangs, this group has little to keep it together. It has no leader or hierarchy, White said. He called them a "dysfunctional group" of street thugs, connected mostly from their joint involvement in crime.
" 'Gang' is probably giving them way too much credit," White said. "They're bad guys, make no mistake about it. But their level of education, their level of sophistication, is wanting."
The 31 suspects presented at White's Thursday news conference, ranging in age from 17 to 54, represent what he called "the worst of the group." Some are brothers or cousins. They are accused of everything from rape, kidnapping and arson to grand thefts, assaults and witness tampering. One man, Miguel Ibarra, 19, was charged in March with murder.
The group has faced 72 felony charges and five federal indictments, White said. Some were sentenced to state prison. Two convicted drug traffickers will spend years in a federal penitentiary, including David Hernandez, 29, who faces a sentence of 20 years.
"Their histories reflect that they have a wanton disregard for peace, for justice," said Trevor Velinor, an acting special agent in charge for the Tampa division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. ATF and Drug Enforcement Administration agents helped with the investigation. "Their goal is to cause havoc in our community."
Lock Street serves as the main drag through Tommytown, home to migrant workers and the working poor. In 2004, activists from groups like Farmworkers Self-Help and the Teen Dream Team, who have fought to improve the community for years, earned a symbolic victory when the county gave the infamous road a second name: Calle de Milagros, the "Street of Miracles."
In recent years, millions of federal dollars have paved roads, laid water lines and razed crumbling houses in what federal housing officials call the state's largest redevelopment project of its kind.
But the investigation shows that challenges remain. In one picture, a shotgun and assault rifle are posed next to a swiped Calle de Milagros street sign.
Supposed "gang" symbols — the initials "LSG," the words "Dade City" and the "352" area code — are sprayed in graffiti across trash bins, storefronts and old fence posts. Some bear tattoos of the symbols.
"The Lock Street Gang moniker was used to create fear," White said. "It's a footprint. It's their advertisement. It's their billboard. It says, 'We're here, and we're in charge.' … You can see by their photographs — they're proud of it. And that makes them doubly dangerous."
The moniker, though, is nothing new. As early as 1996, Tommytown locals have said any group of young people without much to do has become affiliated with the "gang."
One teenager told the Times in 1996 that some kids assumed the name after hearing it from police. "They say we're LSG, so we're LSG," said Jose Sandoval, 16. "If they say we are, we are."
The timing of White's conference, scheduled four days before his public appearance in Tallahassee, recalls White's contracted battle with the county over his $85.5 million budget. White wants another $4 million, much of it for deputies patrolling west Pasco, and has lobbied county commissioners for months. On Monday, he is scheduled to appeal their decision to aides of the state Cabinet.
He made no mention of the budget but argued for the importance of additional support for deputies.
"This is why ongoing, proactive police presence is so important," White said. Though he said special teams of patrol deputies have addressed crime around Dade City, "That takes resources. And those are the resources this office has historically not had."
When asked why he had announced the years-old crackdown now, when most of the suspects were arrested last year, White pointed to the rigors of a long-term investigation.
"What happens is, about the time we think we're ready to announce this, another bad guy pops up and says, 'Hey, you want to buy some guns?' " White said. "We wait until we hook and book this guy, and by the time we're ready to make this announcement, we have to add another picture to the board. … It's kind of just drug out a little bit longer than we hoped it would drag out."
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 869-6244 or firstname.lastname@example.org.