Retiring SAPD gang unit detective launched legendary capers during his career


They call them “Launi capers.”

When Detective Jeff Launi heads out on a case, you often don’t know what he’ll come back with or where the case will lead.

According to Sgt. Dominick Padilla, Launi’s supervisor in the Santa Ana Police Department Gang Unit, when the detective gets a thread, he will pull on it until the case unravels entirely.

Corporal Jason Bruns, another Gang Unit officer, said what often happens in a Launi case is that, “it grows legs and gets wild.”

“Every time I back down the ramp people jump into the back of my car,” Launi joked about how crime and criminals seem to find him. “It’s too easy to find crime.”

Det. Jeff Launi was in the gang unit at the Santa Ana Police Department.
Photo courtesy of the Santa Ana Police Department

After 40 years in law enforcement it can get like that. Your nose for crime is like a sixth sense.

Launi’s instincts and tenacity have made him a stalwart in the Santa Ana Police Department’s Gang Unit, where he has been a detective for more than 30 years.

On March 23, Launi will formally retire, although he imagines tying loose ends on certain cases could extend his stay, not to mention court testimonies will keep him active going forward.

Although he could have retired with a full pension years ago, Launi has enjoyed the work too much to let it go. That may explain why Launi has found it hard to resist the urge to take on more work in his waning days.

“I’m going to have to put on blinders,” he says, which goes against every one of his investigative instincts. The retiring detective says he has no shortage of home projects to take on.

Det. Jeff Launi of the Santa Ana Police Department is retiring soon after a 40-year career in law enforcement.
Photo courtesy of the Santa Ana Police Department

The difference now, he says, is “they won’t have to be completed by Tuesday when I have to go back to work.”

Launi will also have plenty of time to visit with his three kids and four grandchildren. He is also planning to do some traveling and motorcycle touring, like a bike trip to Mt. Rushmore with a group of fellow bike enthusiasts. He is also contemplating the possibility of building a home on some property he owns out of state.

However, he says, “I was born and raised in Orange. This really is home. I’m not in a hurry to do anything.”

As part of his retirement planning, Launi said he was given a form that asked if he would be willing to testify after retirement. You can imagine Launi’s answer.

“I said, ‘Yes.’ I worked hard to get these cases to trial. I could be coming back for two to five years,” he said.

But for everyone, there comes a time to let go.

“I’ve been here too long. At my age, certain things are getting harder,” Launi said.

He also understands that his job is one that carries certain risks and the possibility of injury.

“I don’t want to go out on my hands and knees,” he said. “This way I can go out on top.”

Leaving a legacy

Launi’s coworkers say he will be greatly missed.

“His contributions to the unit can’t be summarized,” Sgt. Padilla said. “He’s covered decades of changes from when (the Gang Unit) began, almost. He’s part of the reputation and tradition. Losing him is a tremendous blow.”

Corporal Bruns said since early in his career as a patrol officer and through today that Launi has been a mentor. He said Launi is “a walking dictionary,” in almost any aspect of a case, from the laws to policies and procedures.

“You have to be diligent, there’s a lot that goes into a gang investigation, a lot of layers,” Sgt. Padilla said.

Det. Jeff Launi of the Santa Ana Police Department walks through the department.
Photo courtesy of the Santa Ana Police Department

There is little Launi hasn’t seen across the years, having worked rotations on homicide, robbery and violent assaults. He says he has worked about 300 homicides and witnessed more than 100 autopsies. For this reason, officers throughout the department seek Launi as a resource.

Although assigned to gangs, Launi said he is no longer part of the street-level team, but is on the investigative team.

Sgt. Padilla says one of Launi’s particular strengths is that he can support operations in any capacity.

“That guy does not complain,” Sgt. Padilla says. “He’s not an ego guy.”

According to Launi, the nature of the work has changed over the years, thanks in part to the recognition by leadership of the importance of the unit and its effectiveness.

When Launi joined the unit 30 years ago, he said, gang crime seemed worse.

“The unit was not the size it is now,” he said. “We didn’t have the manpower and the equipment like we have today.”

Since the unit was beefed up, Launi says, “Now we’re able to do more proactive policing.”

Because of the good work of the unit, Launi said he has the opportunity to work cases with and for other units.

A ‘people business’

Sgt. Padilla says young officers have learned just by watching Launi how to conduct investigations and get results.

“For the last year we’ve been stealing his tactics to mimic,” Sgt. Padilla said. “He’s a boots-on-the-ground kind of guy. He believes in going door to door.”

For many young officers who have learned to investigate from behind a computer screen and studying data, Launi’s example is important.

“Young officers have to be taught to get out of their cars,” Sgt. Padilla said, adding that in-person interviews are a skill that needs to be learned.

“Jeff and guys like that have it down to a science,” Sgt. Padilla said.

“I still believe it’s a people business,” Launi said of policing. “I think that’s why I got into the job.”

Det. Jeff Launi speaks with another member of the police gang unit at the Santa Ana Police Department.
Photo courtesy of the Santa Ana Police Department

When Launi is not hot on someone’s tail, he says, he’ll go and check out neighborhoods and see what’s going on, sort of like a cop on the block.

“I’m old school, ” Launi said. “I know all the merchants downtown. You get to know the community. That’s something we don’t do anymore.”

Launi says by simply talking and listening, you never know what you’ll find.

“I joke that half the city has my phone number,” Launi said. “People who don’t want to call the city call me instead.”

Launi capers

Corporal Bruns recalls a case from a phone call that was mistakenly sent to Launi. As Corporal Bruns remembered it, the case had to do with a store that suspected an employee was stealing and asked if Launi could investigate.

“He took it on the side while doing his regular work,” Corporal Bruns said.

By the time Launi concluded his investigation, he had unearthed a ring within the store chain leading to multiple arrests and losses that were multiples higher than the company suspected.

“He wrapped it all up,” Corporal Bruns said.

“He finds cases that trickle out,” Sgt. Padilla said, adding it’s not uncommon for a simple request to evolve into a case with multiple arrests.

Launi remembers getting a call about a man who was brazenly shoplifting in downtown Santa Ana.

“He was basically taking what he wanted,” Launi said.

For many police, that’s not a case they’d want to bother with.

Not Launi.

“You can’t ignore it. You have to work it,” he said.

And so he did.

By the time Hector Maldonado, dubbed a one-man crime spree, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six years in prison, Launi had helped connect Maldonado to thefts in Huntington Beach, Costa Mesa, Santa Ana, Anaheim, Tustin and Aliso Viejo.

Det. Jeff Launi of the Santa Ana Police Department.
Photo courtesy of the Santa Ana Police Department

When police searched Maldonado’s residence, they recovered children’s clothes, expensive purses and wallets, and other stolen goods, worth “at least six figures,” Launi told the Orange County Register at the time.

Another phone call Launi received had to do with a person who thought her family had been victimized by a housecleaning crew. Launi turned up 12 victims across Orange County and was able to get about two-thirds of the stolen items returned to the original victim.

In another case, Launi kept after it for more than a year before the final perpetrator was located.

“I hate it when things fall through the cracks,” Launi said.

Members in the Gang Unit sometimes get into theoretical discussions of detectives they would not want on the case if they did something wrong, and Launi is usually high on the list.

“He’s meticulous, but he’ll get you,” said Sgt. Padilla, who has told Launi, “you’re a legend.”

“I found my calling and my sweet spot in gangs,” Launi says.

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