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Federal gang case brings long sentences
By santacruzsentinel.com
Published: 04/04/2011

Long sentences are becoming the norm in the federal case called Operation Valley Star that's setting new standards in gang prosecutions.

In the multi-year investigation of the Nuestra Familia gang's power base in Salinas, Monterey County gang associates are receiving sentences of 20 years or more after pleading guilty to taking part in their gang's drug-dealing conspiracy.

Operation Valley Star began in Watsonville when police began targeting members of the California prison gang Nuestra Familia. Police joined the FBI in a multi-jurisdictional effort to bring down members of the gang after a crime spree through Watsonville and neighboring cities began in the fall of 2003.

Among those already sentenced after pleading guilty in the case are:

Salinas resident Manuel Gauna, sentenced to 21 years and 10 months

Salinas resident Richard Mendoza, 17 years and six months

San Francisco Bay Area resident Bismark Ocampo, 28 years

Salinas resident David Ramirez, 15 years and eight months

Greenfield resident Faustino Gonzalez, 15 years and eight months

Monday, Salinas resident Gabriel Caracheo pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge, but has yet to be sentenced.

Those who choose to proceed with trials run the risk of even longer prison terms.

Of the case's three dozen co-defendants, only five have so far chosen to take their case to a full trial.

After one of the case's minor players received a 21-year sentence after his trial, it became clear that co-defendants who were more deeply involved in the gang's drug crimes had little to gain by rejecting plea offers.

Yet four of them did.

They include the man described as the gang's most powerful man outside of prison, longtime Salinas resident Larry "Paqui" Amaro.

Amaro and three others were found guilty in December of conspiracy and other charges after a three-month trial.

Investigators and former gang members say that at least two defendants were determined to use the trial as a tool to flush out witnesses and informants, a tactic used by the gang in past Monterey County cases.

During the trial's final days, Amaro and Gerardo Mora, also of Salinas, insisted that several confidential informants be subpoenaed to testify, even though the two knew the witnesses would invoke their Fifth Amendment rights, said assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Hitt.

"Amaro insisted that informant Charles Oak be brought from Pelican Bay and walked into the courtroom in an atmosphere of hostility," Hitt wrote in a sentencing memo filed this week.

Amaro and Mora's objective was to create "an atmosphere of fear and intimidation," Hitt wrote.

Last fall, Mora phoned a Salinas gang associate from his Sacramento jail and named four cooperators, calling them "snitches," Hitt said.

But Hitt said the gang's decision to go to trial backfired.

That's partly because Hitt is asking for life in prison for Amaro and 45 years for Mora and Salinas resident Ernest Paul Killinger when they're sentenced May 2.

But it's also because the trial brought forth several witnesses who testified about alleged criminal involvement by even more of the gang's associates.

Those include Monterey County residents Robert "Bubba" Hanrahan, Carolyn Huerta and Rebecca Guzman, as well as three others.

All six were charged in indictments that were unsealed last week.

"The Hanrahan indictment arises out of evidence introduced during the 2010 trial that demonstrated that each of the six defendants were involved in the NF's extensive drug trafficking activities in Northern California between 2003 and 2007," Hitt said in a statement.

Guzman, Amaro's niece, remained at large last week when the others were arrested or notified of their indictments, but Tuesday, Salinas police detained her and transferred her to FBI custody.

Huerta is in Monterey County Jail awaiting trial on a felony resisting arrest charge. Officials say she won't be transferred to federal custody in Sacramento until her Monterey County trial is over.

Hanrahan, who is Caracheo's brother-in-law, an admitted Nuestra Familia member and former Salinas crew boss, is serving a 13-year sentence in Pelican Bay State Prison.

Defense attorneys, however, say the government painted with too broad a brush when it charged drug crimes as a conspiracy of a "vast, well-oiled machine based on a military concept," Amaro's attorney Peter Kmeto said.

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