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Police crack down on Pinal gangs

Crips and Bloods in Casa Grande, Coolidge and Eloy targeted

A Swat Team member covers fellow task force members during a raid on a home for Operation: Enough is Enough in Casa Grande.

A Swat Team member covers fellow task force members during a raid on a home for Operation: Enough is Enough in Casa Grande.

More than 100 law officers swept down on urban-style gangs in rural Pinal County this morning, trying to staunch a year-long frenzy of gun battles and violent crime attributed to a rivalry between Crips and Bloods.

Arizona Department of Public Safety Detective Edward McNeill said a task force has worked since September to rein in gangs from Casa Grande, Coolidge and Eloy that are believed responsible for 5 murders, 27 drive-by shootings, 19 bullet wounds and 2 stabbings.

“We wanted to stop the killing while we investigated in an undercover capacity,” added Tim Mason, a DPS sergeant. “This was an all-out gang war . . . Some of these guys watched too many movies and thought they could lead the lifestyle.”

Police tactical teams from eight agencies descended on Casa Grande shortly after dawn with 22 arrest warrants and nine search warrants for suspected gangsters.

McNeill said there are about 60 members and associates from each gang operating in the Casa Grande area, directly in the path of Phoenix’s southward residential expansion toward Tucson. The gangsters are members of entrenched local crime families rather than interlopers from California or metro Phoenix, McNeill said. In some cases, they gained the affiliation in prison or through relatives who served time.

More than 20 suspects were arrested during the past four months, but McNeill said today’s crackdown is the largest to date. He described the suspects as heavily armed, preferring AK-47s and semi-automatic pistols. One member was wearing body armor when captured.

While gangsters usually target one another, McNeill said, a number of civilians have been injured and their homes damaged in shooting episodes.

“They’re scared to even speak up,” he added. “They’re afraid of these guys.”

McNeill, the lead investigator, said the case was nicknamed “Operation Enough Is Enough” because bloodshed was disrupting otherwise peaceful towns with low crime rates.

“We’re dealing with the worst of the worst here,” he added. “They’re very brazen . . . We felt that the violence had escalated to a point where enough was enough, which is how we got that name.”

The Bloods-Crips rivalry in Casa Grande turned lethal on Sept. 14, 2006, with the murder of gang member Frank Alexander III. Shootouts increased over the next few months, prompting authorities to move in with high-profile patrols. At times, as many as a dozen two-man teams patrolled Casa Grande in dark uniforms that led them to be nick-named “the men in black.”

Crime plummeted for awhile, then escalated with more homicides. The most public was a Coolidge shootout that took the life of 20-year-old Ernest Kelly Jr. of Casa Grande, and left two other men wounded. Investigators believe at least five people took part in the exchange of bullets over a drug dispute.

Bloods and Crips are uncommon in most of Arizona’s rural communities, but McNeill said they are found in small-town pockets throughout Pinal County.

The groups in Casa Grande, Eloy and Coolidge are believed to have substantial drug operations, and McNeill said they fight over narcotics deals as well as colors. “I would say the people we’re targeting are responsible for the majority of drug trafficking in these communities,” he added.

Most of the arrest warrants are for drug offenses and weapons violations. McNeill said several of the homicides have been solved, with defendants in custody already, but suspects in at least one killing remain at large.

The raids were headed by DPS officers in the Gang and Immigration Intelligence Team Enforcement Mission (GIITEM), with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. It also involved the DEA, FBI, U.S. Marshals Service, Pinal County Sheriff’s Office and police from the three cities.

McNeill said the entire GIITEM staff from southern Arizona has been assigned to Casa Grande gangsters for months with single objective: “to remove them from the neighborhoods and make it a safer place.”

DPS Swat Team Commander David Denlinger carries a child to safety that was in a home the task force raided as part of Operation: Enough is Enough Thursday morning.

DPS Swat Team Commander David Denlinger carries a child to safety that was in a home the task force raided as part of Operation: Enough is Enough Thursday morning.

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