About 20 police cars with flashing red and blue lights clogged Bystrum Road, a narrow street just east of South Ninth Street and Highway 99 in a tough, unincorporated area between Ceres and Modesto.
It was about 11:30 p.m. Friday, and the multiagency law enforcement effort organized to solve four recent gang shootings in Modesto and suppress the violence had converged on this small street between Sonora and Latimer avenues.
About 40 cops from various agencies got out of their cars and crowded around a small home on Bystrum where suspected gang members were having a party.
With help of information gathered on the street, the cops crashed the party and detained about 15 people, handcuffing and lining them up with their backs to the police cars.
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A sheriff's helicopter circled, its spotlight aimed at the house.
As a group of officers searched the home, gang investigators took turns interviewing those who were detained.
The investigators asked for their name, age, weight, height, physical features such as tattoos, home address, where they work, if they have served time in prison or jail, if they use drugs, what drugs they use, what gang they belong to, where they hang out, when they joined the gang and other questions.
That's how investigators gain crucial intelligence on gangs. They talk to gang members.
"Most people think we don't talk to gang members, like we wouldn't," said Sgt. Jeramy Young, a supervisor with the Modesto Police Street Crimes Unit. "We actually talk to gang members. That's how we do it."
But it's dangerous work on any night. On this night, however, the risk was higher.
Three days earlier, two men were shot as they walked a dog in Modesto's airport neighborhood. A 51-year-old man died, and a 29-year-old man was shot in the leg.
The week before, the Street Crimes Unit was investigating two drive-by shootings on the same night in west Modesto that injured a toddler and a 15-year-old Modesto boy and killed his 14-year-old friend from San Jose.
Three weeks ago today, a 48-year-old Long Beach man visiting friends in west Modesto for the Cambodian new year was killed by stray gunfire from a gang confrontation.
Some suspects at large
The possibility of retaliation or the escalation of violence increases when multiple gang shootings occur in a short time frame, Young said.
"The potential for (gang members) to be armed is increased," Young said as he drove a marked patrol unit through west Modesto. "They'll have a gun on them to protect themselves. They're just as likely to use their weapons on us as they would on other gang members."
And some believed to be involved in the recent shootings were on the loose as of Saturday.
Modesto police arrested four suspects in connection with the Long Beach man's death, but investigators are looking for a fifth suspect.
A suspect believed by detectives to be the shooter in the airport neighborhood death has not been found. And investigators have not identified suspects in the two drive-by shootings that occurred in west Modesto a week ago Friday.
"The main thing is that we make sure we all go home at the end of the shift," Young said about his colleagues. "We're fighting this fight every day, and we need the help from the community."
Numerous agencies have been working the streets, including the Modesto police, Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department, Ceres police, Stanislaus County Probation Department, state parole agents and members of the Central Valley Gang Impact Task Force.
For more than a week, Young and the rest of the Modesto police Street Crimes Unit have been on duty.
The gang enforcement team handles investigations, gathers intelligence and carries out gang suppression in an attempt to keep gang members from confronting each other or retaliating. Members of the unit normally work four days of 11-hour shifts followed by four days off.
"This is supposed to be my day off," Young said, rubbing his eyes as he started his overtime shift from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. "The crew that's supposed to be working tonight had to work this morning, so we had to come to work."
The unit's members hit the streets at different times of the day, so gang members won't know when they're coming.
Young said it comes with the job: late hours, losing sleep, working seven consecutive days without a day off and last-minute changes to the work schedule.
And the work pays off, he said. Gathering gang intelligence during suppression efforts speeds the investigations of gang shootings. The gang investigators can help detectives and patrol units in finding the right people to talk to.
"We know who the (gang member) is, where he lives, where he works, who his girlfriend is," Young said. "That might be all it takes to get to him."
Police go high profile
Creating a highly-visible presence also was part of Friday night's operation, so Young suited up in black cargo pants, a black baseball cap, a long-sleeve black shirt with Modesto police insignias and a bulletproof vest underneath.
His baseball cap was pulled down tight with the sides of the cap's bill folded down to cover his forehead, leaving his eyes barely visible. Young prefers a more subdued presence while he works, which sometimes involves surveillance.
Normally, Young cruises through Modesto in one of the dark-blue Ford Crown Victorias used by members of the Street Crimes Unit.
The dark-blue cars are well-known on the street and have received nicknames. Young said the Street Crimes Unit calls the cars "Metros," but the kids in west Modesto call the cars "Blue Dragons."
"I really don't know why they say 'Blue Dragons,' " Young said.
A few "Blue Dragons" were out Friday along with other unmarked cars, including the vehicles used by the members of the sheriff's Special Team Investigating Narcotics and Gangs, also known as STING.
Young caught up with the STING investigators after they made a traffic stop in the airport neighborhood also called "the port."
The STING crew pulled over two men in a pickup, and they were photographing the tattoos on one with a digital camera.
"Those tattoos tell us a lot," Young said. "What his moniker is, what 'gang set' he's in."
'Hey boss, hey boss'
Large gangs are sometimes divided into "gang sets" that differentiate smaller groups within the same gang, Young said. Take the Norteños, or Northerners, for example. The gang has members spread throughout the city and the region, but there also are the Vernon Block Norteños, named after west Modesto's Vernon Avenue.
All that information is crucial in identifying suspects, and one of the men in the airport neighborhood traffic stop wanted to volunteer some information to Young.
"Hey boss, hey boss," the man called out to Young while sitting in the back seat of a sheriff's vehicle. The man was a parolee and was caught with a knife.
The man claimed he had some information about the recent violence, so Young and STING Detective Sam Green leaned into the back seat to listen.
Green and his STING crew were wearing bulletproof vests and baseball caps with sheriff's STING insignias, but Green was wearing his cap backward with the words "The Bull" stitched on the cap above his forehead.
Green's no-nonsense demeanor is necessary for gang investigators sorting tips from career criminals and gang members.
Young and Green lowered their voices, making sure passers-by couldn't hear. They brought the parolee out to look at his tattoos before Green tells him "get back into the car. I don't want anyone to rat you out that you're a snitch."
They decide to take him to jail and verify the information later.
"These gang members act all hard, but all of them roll on each other," Young said. "They'll snitch on their friends; anything to get out of trouble. That's actually the best thing we have going for us."
It makes a big difference to have parole agents and probation officers out with the gang investigators because they know who is just out of prison or jail, Young said. The investigators don't have to spend time searching through computer databases if the agents and officers know their faces and names.
Young said the investigators make traffic stops and conduct searches based on traffic violations, probable cause, probation or parole requirements and department policy. Sometimes, a traffic stop is not needed and the investigators just talk to residents on their front yards or on the sidewalk.
The investigators say they come across a lot of liars when conducting field interviews, so they use straightforward language to gather information.
"I'm just going to ask you some questions," Young said to a 19-year-old Manteca man. "That's the way it goes here; we'll show you the same respect you show us."
Pulled over 3 gang members
Officer Robert Reyna and Sgt. Alex Bettis, of the Street Crimes Unit, pulled over a Manteca man driving a Ford Explorer through the airport neighborhood with two friends. The three young men were Sureños, or Southerners.
Bettis and Reyna searched the sport utility vehicle and questioned the two passengers as Young questioned the driver, who was from San Bernardino and now works at a Manteca eatery.
"I got jumped-in about four years ago," the driver said about the violent gang initiation that involved punching and kicking. "It was mostly the big leaders (who carried out the initiation)."
Nothing incriminating was found, so the gang investigators told them to go home and warned them about hanging out in a rival gang's territory, the Norteños.
The gang investigators continued the night in west Modesto, making traffic stops. One stop southeast of Modesto High led to an impromptu debriefing among several gang investigators and parole agents to sort out the gang-intel.
A small convoy of police cars headed to the John Thurman Field parking lot for the meeting. There, they discussed the parolee they ran into, a "gang-house" across the street from a traffic stop and violent offenders scheduled for release from prison.
Young said a clear line of communication between agencies is vital in tracking gang members who jump across jurisdictional boundaries when committing crimes. They also shared tips from confidential informants.
"I'm just waiting for my CI to call me," one of the gang investigators said to the group gathered in the parking lot.
Confidential informants are a big source for the investigators and are mostly former gang members looking for a way out and who want to make a little money while doing it, Young said. Some informants even are recruited through the hot line for the Street Crimes Unit.
After the debriefing, the gang investigators continued their traffic stops before they confirmed the location of the party on Bystrum Road and the contingent of cops convened in front of the home.
Young said Saturday they arrested six people there on suspicion of public intoxication. He said the officers also found a small amount of methamphetamine and marijuana.
Modesto police Sgt. Rick Armendariz, who supervises the Central Valley Gang Impact Task Force, led the group of officers who searched the house.
The task force is a federally funded countywide group that has members from local law enforcement agencies and the FBI. The agency is a clearinghouse for gang information from around the area.
Armendariz said residents should not allow fear of gang retaliation to take control of their neighborhoods and put everyone's life at risk.
"We're empowering these gang members by taking the ostrich approach and basically sticking our heads in the sand," said Armendariz, who coordinated the multiagency law enforcement effort.
He said it's been a challenging time for the investigators involved in the countywide effort.
"I can't remember the last time I had a day off," Armendariz said. "But we do it because it's needed."
As Young drove his patrol unit back to west Modesto for another cruise through the neighborhood plagued with gang violence, he said, "hopefully, things will calm down and things will go back to normal."
To contact the Modesto police Street Crimes Unit, call 567-4446. Tipsters also can call CrimeStoppers at 521-4636. Callers to CrimeStoppers can remain anonymous and may be eligible for a cash reward.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2394.