Operation gotcha

Operation gotcha

Pasadena cops team up with federal agents to bring down alleged interstate drug and gun operation

By André Coleman 10/09/2008

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Convicted killer and drug dealer Elrader “Ray Ray” Browning led a reign of terror over portions of Pasadena for nearly dozen years until his arrest in 1987.

Today, authorities believe brothers Franklin and Dwayne Thompson tried to pick up where Browning left off, running a gun- and drug-running operation that involved shipping contraband over state lines in a tractor-trailer and may have indirectly contributed to 12 gang-involved shooting deaths since summer 2007.

“The modern-day violence that has occurred, compared to the way Ray Ray did business, was different,” said Pasadena police Cmdr. Mike Korpal. “Ray Ray had specific targets. These gangs that wanted control over turf and drug sales were shooting at anybody.”

On Monday, authorities publicly displayed some of the booty seized during a nearly two-year investigation that saw Pasadena police working alongside agents from the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Homeland Security’s Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) division and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

Coinciding with the federal probe dubbed Operation Hard Rock, local police were conducting Operation Safe Cities, which began in February 2007 and has since that time resulted in 89 arrests and 28 federal indictments on drug- and weapons-related charges.

Authorities have also seized drugs worth about $500,000 and $98,000 in cash, in addition to 36 weapons and $20,000 in jewelry.

The Thompson brothers, authorities allege, ran an operation with branches in three states that used a big rig to transport drugs and weapons into Pasadena, where they were then sold to gang members. When the brothers were arrested in July 2007 — Franklin was taken into custody in Pasadena, Dwayne in Cincinnati — officials seized 10 kilos of cocaine, 18 weapons including shotguns, automatic rifles and handguns, $50,000 in cash and four vehicles, including the tractor-trailer.

The brothers — Franklin is 45, Dwayne is 43 — are in custody on the East Coast. They have been indicted by a federal grand jury in Pittsburgh on charges of conspiring to distribute and possess with intent to distribute more than five kilos of cocaine and conspiring to launder money. If convicted, the charges carry life sentences and fines up to $500,000. No trial date has been set.

“They were the leaders in narcotics sales in Pasadena along with their lieutenants,” Deputy Police Chief Chris Vicino said of the Thompson brothers. “This is a drug organization that had a far-reaching impact, all the way back to Detroit, Pittsburgh and Indiana. The drugs left Pasadena to all these different cities and the money returned. What also returned with those monies were different weapons. Caches of weapons were found in different homes in Pasadena. They were using those to uphold their narcotics empire.”

Pasadena Police Chief Bernard Melekian said the drug organization “extended all the way across the United States.” The joint investigation, he said, “involved tracking both people and packages, setting up undercover operations in neighborhoods and purchasing weapons and narcotics.”

Operation Safe Cities involved swarming some of the city's most crime-stricken areas, which led to police conducting 1,215 field interviews and making 1,045 traffic stops. Of the 627 citations issued, 118 vehicles were impounded and 540 arrests were made.

Some in the black and Latino communities criticized police for being what they called overly aggressive and disrupting the lives of ordinary citizens, forcing officials to focus more on major players involved in violence and other illegal activities linked to Franklin Thompson.

Soon after the brothers were arrested, local gangs began feuding over control of the narcotics trade, leading to the 12 gang-related shooting deaths, which some erroneously attributed to rising racial tensions between Latinos and African-Americans. 

“[Two gangs] were feuding and Franklin was the supplier of most of the narcotics to the gangs,” said Korpal. “With his arrest came a great deal of confusion over the ability to control the drug trafficking. The violence was starting to ramp up, so we continued to develop Operation Safe Cities.”

Police credited the program for a sharp reduction in crime, especially murder, which this year totaled two — neither of them gang-related.

“All 12 [of the murders in 2007] at the core had something to do with narcotics and gangs and sometimes both,” Vicino said.

At the height of the violence in Pasadena, police partnered with the US Attorney’s Office, which deployed ATF, DEA and ICE agents to Pasadena. Those agents worked undercover and tracked the operations in Pasadena’s drug trade, leading to additional arrests.

“We took a scalpel to the cancer that was in the neighborhoods, that was selling cocaine, and issuing violence around the city of Pasadena,” Vicino said.

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