LOS ANGELES – Sneaky, Shy Boy, Big Barney and dozens of other gangsters were not merely hoodlums who ran a bustling drug trade. Prosecutors insist the Vineland Boys were an organized criminal enterprise just like the Mafia.
To prove it, they are relying on the same law that put John Gotti behind bars.
Similar cases are being pursued across the nation as prosecutors go after gangs in novel ways, often using methods created to fight mob activity.
One such trial is expected to start next week in Los Angeles, where prosecutors have charged members of the Vineland Boys not with murder or drug trafficking, but with violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. The RICO Act targets those who profit from criminal organizations but manage to avoid illegal activities.
"Gang members out here are clearly becoming more sophisticated in their operations and tactics, and we're adjusting to meet that," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas P. O'Brien.
Last year, Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez urged increased prosecutions of street gangs, which he dubbed one of the country's greatest threats. In recent months, more than 50 alleged gang members have been indicted on federal drug, gun and racketeering charges — compared with an average of 10 federal indictments annually over the previous 10 years.
Critics say overzealous prosecutors are trying to get headlines without making any lasting effect on the estimated 80,000 gang members in Los Angeles.
The RICO law, a 1970 statute passed to combat organized crime syndicates, has been used against gangs in California, Georgia, Maryland, Oklahoma and other states.
It can mean a life sentence, but prosecutors must prove that indicted gang members who did not pull the trigger or sell a bag of heroin still profited from the criminal enterprise. That requires exhaustive investigations and indictments that can read like organizational flow charts.
Former federal prosecutor Lawrence Rosenthal said high-profile federal prosecutions do little to improve gang-stricken neighborhoods.
"They will send lots of people to jail, but won't change the streetscape," said Rosenthal, a law professor at Chapman University in Orange County. Six months later a new set of gangs is "fighting to control turf that old gangs controlled."
The former federal prosecutor who drafted the RICO statute said he never expected it would be used against street gangs but he thinks doing so makes sense if the gang members are suspected of mob-like crimes.
G. Robert Blakey, who is now a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, said federal authorities can arrest and indict several gang members at once, helping to prevent the gang from regenerating.
"The key difference is traditional state prosecutions are retail. Federal prosecutions are wholesale," Blakey said.
Sentences in federal court are also longer and do not offer parole. And federal investigators are better equipped than local authorities to use wiretaps or listening devices and to recruit informants, Blakey said.
According to court papers, the Vineland Boys were founded in the 1980s by members of a San Fernando Valley football team. The gang later merged with other groups, making it a force in the communities north of downtown Los Angeles.
A cadre of founders run its operations, the indictment alleges, and status depends on a willingness to sell drugs. In protecting their enterprise, gang members allegedly killed Burbank police officer Matthew Pavelka during a traffic stop, threatened witnesses and paid "taxes" to the Mexican Mafia prison gang.
Pavelka's 2003 killing spurred an 18-month investigation by a task force of police and federal agents. It culminated in a pre-dawn raid last summer that also resulted in cocaine charges against a popular Burbank councilwoman.
University of Southern California professor emeritus Malcolm Klein has researched street gangs for decades and questions the guiding premise of RICO prosecutions — that gangs are organized enterprises.
"Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of all gang members are bored teenagers who don't do anything more criminal than smoke pot and get drunk," Klein said.