Editor’s note: In honor of Behind the Badge OC’s one-year anniversary, we will be sharing the 30 most-read stories. This story out of Tustin was originally published March 9.
The gang member sauntered into the middle of the street, flapping his hands in the air like a bird, shouting obscenities, challenging the crew in the car in front of him.
He was a member of a gang called South Side Santa Ana, and he had a gun in his right hand.
In front of him was a light blue 1985 Cadillac, which, until it had been confiscated, had once been a “load car” used by dealers to transport drugs.
Unbeknownst to the gang member, the Cadillac was full of Tustin police officers – five of them to be exact.
The gang member had picked a fight with the first ever Gang Unit in the history of the Tustin Police Department. They were Sgt. Joe Stickles and police officers Jeff Blair, Todd Bullock, Mike Clesceri and Mike Lamoureux.
When he saw it was the police, the gang member ran. But they caught him, arrested him and took his gun.
It was July of 1996, the year gang-related crime began exploding in Tustin. “Crime was through the roof,” Blair said. “Those were the hot years.”
It was also the gang unit’s first day of operation.
And, over the next five years, they would become a wildly successful policing team. They have years and years of statistics that show just how effective they were, but one statistic above all others stands out.
More on that later.
Whatever happened to those members of the gang unit, which, with different officers today, is still an effective Tustin squad?
In the late 1990s, Tustin streets were regularly roamed by the Deuce Tray Crips, South Side Santa Ana, Los Wickeds, Barrio Brown Revolution, Maniacs, Laurel Hood Tustin, Los Crooks, Nutthood Crips, Watergate Crips, Barrio Rascals, Alley Boys and Pasadena Varrio Locos among others. (Most of those gangs no longer exist in Tustin today).
The corner of Pasadena and McFadden avenues was called “Killer Corner” because in one calendar year a murder had been committed on each corner of that intersection.
The Tustin Police Department didn’t have a Gang Unit until after Thien Minh Ly, a scholar with degrees from UCLA and Georgetown University, was stabbed to death by a white supremacist gang member on the Tustin High School tennis courts.
That crime was such a tragic event in the city that Blair and Bullock’s proposal for a two-man team to tackle street gangs was bolstered into a four-man team with a sergeant.
A look at nearly two decades of crime statistics reveals that Tustin’s “Part 1” crimes – homicide, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, larceny, arson and auto theft – hit their peak in 1998 when 2,424 were reported. Last year, as a way of comparison, 1,482 Part 1 crimes were reported in Tustin.
The Tustin Police have made a huge dent in crime since their peak crime years, and that first gang unit is one way they got started.
Current Chief Charles Celano became a Gang Unit sergeant in 2001, and Blair still tells the story of he and the Chief wrestling a gun-toting gang member to the ground across the street from the Santa Ana Zoo.
Reports from the late 1990s show the gang unit confiscated nine guns in gang-member arrests in one month. Today, two guns confiscated in a gang arrest is a big month.
They still call what happened during those early years “the magic of the gang unit.”
In other words, fortunate stuff always seemed to happen, like the time Blair was having a nice conversation with a gang member who had his hands in his pockets.
During the conversation, the gang member, luckily, revealed he had a gun pointed at Blair in the pocket of his coat. Blair was able to convince the gang member to give up the gun.
Or, there was the time the gang unit was chasing a tagger who tossed what they thought was a spray paint can in the bushes as he ran away. Luckily, a K-9 unit was able to retrace the tagger’s steps, and the dog pulled a gun out of the bushes.
Or, there was the time the Gang Unit responded to a call of shots fired in a gang fight, but when they arrived, they met six gang members peacefully sitting on a curb. The gang members said they hadn’t heard any shots.
Blair snuck away and interviewed a neighbor who, luckily, had videotaped what had happened minutes earlier – a gun battle in the street in front of her apartment. On the videotape, one of the gang members had been shot.
Bullock recognized the shooting victim from the videotape – he was one of the gang members sitting on the curb. When Bullock returned to question the gang member, he revealed that his back was covered in blood and that he had taken a shot gun blast to the stomach.
But the gang unit was never more fortunate than when they set up surveillance in an apartment on Alliance Street. As they were setting up the camera to film that night’s action in a nearby alley, they heard shots fired in the distance.
They quickly pressed “play” on their camera as gang members, luckily, ran STRAIGHT TO THE SPOT THEY WERE FILMING.
The gang unit watched as members of the Los Wickeds gang ran to a garage that was about 50 feet from where the camera sat, opened the lock, pulled open the garage door and revealed a cache of weapons.
The gang unit pounced and arrested all of them before they could get their hands on those weapons.
“We haven’t changed a lot. We just got older,” Bullock said. “We were growing up and getting married. You can’t do it forever.”
The original gang unit guys transferred to other details in the early 2000s.
But they are proud to rattle off their successes. They put 21 members of the Deuce Tray Crips, Tustin’s most notorious gang, behind bars. The other gangs are either gone or vastly less powerful today than they were in the years before the new millennium.
So whatever happened to those five members of the original gang unit?
Sgt. Joe Stickles was later promoted to lieutenant and retired in 2009.
Detective Mike Clesceri was later promoted to sergeant. Then he moved to the Orange County District Attorney’s Office. He retired in 2003.
Detective Mike Lamoureux was later promoted to sergeant and eventually became the supervisor of the Gang Unit. He is currently working for the Tustin Police Department as a patrol supervisor working night shift in South Area Command.
Detective Todd Bullock was later promoted to sergeant, then became the Gang Unit supervisor before being promoted to lieutenant. Todd is now the Tustin Police Department’s North Area Commander.
Detective Jeff Blair was later promoted to sergeant and then lieutenant. Jeff is now the Tustin Police Department’s South Area Commander.
But the statistic that may be most telling about the original gang unit from 1996 … During all the “hot” years from 1996 to 2001 when crime peaked, none of them ever fired a shot.