It’s the kind of car that doesn’t warrant a second glance: a silver minivan.
Boring and unremarkable is exactly how Sgt. Lonzo Reyes wants the vehicle to look.
Blend in. Be another face in the ground. Don’t get noticed.
These are among the mantras followed by Reyes and his team of four officers who make up the Garden Grove PD’s CCAT, for Career Criminal Apprehension Team.
The plainclothes team works undercover, mainly with detectives who want them to find or arrest suspects. The CCAT members are the “muscle” for detectives and other officers throughout the agency when they need resources to go after suspects for crimes ranging from malicious mischief to homicide, from residential burglary to rape.
“If CCAT didn’t exist,” Reyes said, “we wouldn’t be taking as many crooks into custody.”
On a recent operation, CCAT Officer Steve Estlow drove the minivan to stake out a condo where a suspected rapist was believed to be staying, sleeping in his car in a garage.
Although the exterior of Estlow’s van was blah (except for the tinted windows), inside was another story.
There were binoculars, a ballistic vest, night-vision goggles, an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and a shotgun — among other gear.
And in the front-seat cup holder sat four empty Super Big Gulps — 44-ounce containers to be used during long surveillance operations when leaving the vehicle to use a restroom isn’t an option.
“I’ve always liked this unit,” said Estlow, a GGPD officer of 13 years who’s been on the CCAT since January 2017.
Patrol officers rotate onto the unit for 18 months, and then go back to patrol or to another unit.
“I was trying to get on it for a long time,” Estlow said. “I like the fact that we can go after some of the bigger crooks and put bad people in jail. I’ve always like doing surveillance and working in an undercover capacity. You’re able to see a lot more driving around in an undercover car.
“Black and whites (patrol cars) are like lights to cockroaches,” Estlow said. “As soon as you pull up somewhere, everyone scatters.”
CHANGE OF PLANS
Estlow pulled into the gated condo community where the rape suspect was believed to be living and pointed out two cars belonging to his team. The CCAT officers had been huddled inside the cars for about 45 minutes.
Reyes was in a separate car a few blocks away in the parking lot of a convenience store, getting some snacks and planning to join his colleagues — Estlow, Corp. Han Cho, Officer Aaron Coopman, and Officer Rich Alvarez-Brown — on the condo surveillance. He and his crew were midway through their noon to 9 p.m. shift.
Reyes used an app on his mobile phone to make it work like a two-way radio to tell his team he spotted something fishy outside the 7-Eleven.
Two men and a woman sitting in a U-Haul pickup appeared to be scoping out an armored truck that also was in the parking lot. A man believed to have gotten out of the U-Haul was loitering near the 7-Eleven.
To Reyes, it looked like the suspicious people may have been scoping out the armored truck or convenience store for a possible burglary.
They definitely weren’t acting normal.
Shortly after his CCAT team arrived for backup, the U-Haul driver sped away, apparently sensing he was being watched. Reyes believed one of the occupants in the truck might have recognized him or another CCAT member as a GGPD officer.
The fleeing truck sideswiped two other vehicles as it sped away. CCAT members scoured nearby streets hoping to find it, but the driver got away.
“Obviously, the driver would be facing misdemeanor hit-and-run charges,” Reyes said, “but he and his companions didn’t commit any crimes outside the 7-Eleven.”
The episode was common for members of CCAT, who often are pulled away from surveillance and other operations to handle something else.
“What makes a good CCAT member is an officer who’s a go-getter — a person in patrol who is out there actively looking for bad guys, not just someone who responds to calls,” Reyes said. “This is a really desirable assignment.”
Although CCAT members do most of their work in Orange County, they go to other nearby counties hunting for suspects. They can be sent anywhere throughout Southern California, and sometimes beyond.
Being able to spend a lot of time looking for a suspect or suspects is a luxury that detectives and other GGPD officers don’t have.
Twice a month, CCAT members also assist the O.C. Probation Department on AB109 sweeps, making random compliance checks at the homes of felons to make sure they’re following the law and court-mandated orders.
Work done by the CCAT team has helped lead to several recent arrests.
Alvarez-Brown, for example, was working with Det. Jim Franks on a rash of storage locker burglaries. The bad guys were getting past locked gates and then picking locks on lockers and garages, making off with property, then replacing the locks. In many cases, months went by before victims realized their property had been stolen.
Alvarez-Brown and Franks worked that case for about two months before six people were arrested on different days while in the process of attempting to burglarize storage lockers.
In another case, in September 2016, CCAT members started to get eyes on a Garden Grove resident suspected of driving around town looking for women. His M.O. was to expose himself or masturbate in front of them.
“He was a stone-cold pervert,” Reyes said, “one of those guys you warn your sisters and daughters about.”
For several days, CCAT members followed Adrien Alvarado, 36, before arresting him. Alvarado, they discovered, was linked to an attempted kidnapping in Westminster in which he tried to pull a woman into a Dumpster.
Alvarado later was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison.
In another case, Estlow and Alvarez-Brown were cruising around a high-crime area near Beach and Garden Grove Boulevards when they found probable cause to stop a motorist who looked suspicious.
They found him in possession of a gun and a couple of pounds of methamphetamine, Reyes said. The man, Tim James Hughes, also had several outstanding warrants for drug sales and other prior convictions, Reyes said.
Hughes was arrested in April 2017 and remains in custody. He has pleaded not guilty to several felonies. His next scheduled court appearance is Dec. 19.
“That was a good pinch,” Reyes said.
Another good pinch involved the arrests of a man and his girlfriend in a string of car burglaries. Julio Cesar Pachas, 45, and Michella Ann Fuquay, 24, both of Anaheim, along with a third suspect, Zachery Tanner, 21, of Garden Grove, allegedly committed the crimes in January and February 2017.
The three were arrested Feb. 16, 2017, after GGPD detectives led by Franks served a search warrant at Pachas’ and Fuquay’s two-bedroom apartment and Tanner’s home in Garden Grove. There, GGPD detectives recovered hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of stolen items.
All CCAT members learn the fine arts of informant cultivation, surveillance techniques, and undercover work, and they take those skills to other units after their 18-month stint in CCAT ends.
“There’s an art to it,” Reyes said of surveillance. “You have to blend in. You have to be another face in the crowd. If you stick out, a crook will peg you as a cop.”
Reyes is teaching a surveillance class.
“The most important role you have is to be seen as little as possible by the suspect or suspects,” he said.
For example, the “point” driver on a roving surveillance operation (one of three or four drivers in the front who has physical eyes on a suspect and who calls out all the activity) rotates to the back of the line after a few turns.
“During mobile surveillance,” Reyes said, “you shouldn’t take more than two or three turns while following a suspect.”
As for informant cultivation, many referrals come from patrol officers, who often ask a CCAT member to interview an arrestee who claims to have valuable dirt to dish on other criminals.
“You want to put the crooks at ease so they’re not afraid of you,” Reyes said.
Recently, Reyes saw a suspect in a fatal stabbing by chance when he pulled into a parking lot to grab a Subway sandwich. The suspect, with a distinct tattoo on the back of his head, was coming out of a grocery store with a buddy.
Reyes alerted his team and they followed him and arrested the suspect outside a 7-Eleven.
“I love this assignment,” said Reyes, 51, who will be retiring from the GGPD on Dec. 15. “It’s the most fun I’ve had in the nearly 30 years I’ve been here.”