San Diego, California - To address an increase in violent crime, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and its law enforcement partners in the Southern District of California have launched an effort to strategically prosecute the region’s most violent and prolific offenders who are believed to be most responsible for the spike, including those with criminal history and criminal gang affiliation who commit gun crimes.
According to data released in July by the San Diego Police Department (SDPD), gang-related shootings increased 129 percent in the first half of 2021, compared to 2020, and more than 1,000 guns were recovered pursuant to criminal investigations. Responding to this spike, federal gun-related prosecutions in the Southern District of California increased in FY 2021 by almost 50 percent – to the highest levels seen in this office. Most of the defendants were charged with Dealing in Firearms without a license; Possession of Firearms by Prohibited Persons; or Possession of a Firearm in Furtherance of a Drug Trafficking Crime or Crime of Violence.
“Our overriding goal is to reduce violent crime strategically, rather than merely increasing the number of arrests and prosecutions,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman. “Together with our federal, state and local law enforcement partners, we continually direct our focus to the most dangerous people, those responsible for endangering neighborhoods and driving up the violent crime rate.”
“The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is the lead federal law enforcement agency involved in investigations of firearm trafficking,” said ATF Los Angeles Field Division Special Agent in Charge Monique Villegas. “ATF’s highest priority is reducing gun-related violence. When firearms make their way into the criminal element, violence occurs. ATF’s goal is to reduce violent crime by restricting the flow of firearms to prohibited persons, violent criminals and across the border to Mexico. By focusing on firearms trafficking through intelligence-driven investigations, ATF aims to keeps guns out of the hands of those criminals pulling the trigger.”
“The FBI is committed to working with our law enforcement partners to root out violent, criminal groups who terrorize our communities,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Suzanne Turner. “The FBI's multiple interagency task forces have proven to be well-versed in identifying, investigating, and mitigating those violent threats and taking guns off the streets to make our communities safer.”
“I’m proud to partner with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and our law enforcement partners to strategically address the spike in gang violence in San Diego,” said San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan. “The DA’s Office has seen gang homicide cases nearly triple in the last year. We want to be part of the solution by working with law enforcement partners to curb violent gang crimes, while also investing in prevention efforts with our community members to redirect our youth into positive and healthy lifestyles.”
“Now more than ever, it is essential that we work together to prevent and respond to violent crime. This partnership sends a message to would-be criminals that keeping San Diego safe is a priority,” said Chief David Nisleit. “I'd like to thank our longstanding community and law enforcement partners for joining us in this effort to fight violent crime.”
Consistent with the comprehensive strategy announced by the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General in May 2021, the Southern District of California has taken several steps to get guns out of the hands of the most violent offenders and prevent violence in our communities. These efforts include firearm prosecutions initiated against dangerous felons known to be members of gangs. These gun prosecutions involve various types of firearms, and many of the defendants committed the firearm offenses while on probation or parole for prior crimes, including drug trafficking, carjacking, robbery, burglary, false imprisonment, and domestic violence. Two cases recently resulted in lengthy sentences:
- In August 2021, Jason John Clipper, aka “Smokey,” a member of the East Side San Diego criminal street gang with ties to the Mexican Mafia prison gang, was sentenced in federal court to 15 years in prison for unlawfully possessing a firearm, possessing methamphetamine and heroin with the intent to distribute, and possessing a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking offense. At the time of his arrest, San Diego County Probation officers found Clipper in possession of approximately 20 grams of methamphetamine, 8 grams of heroin, and a loaded firearm. Clipper was on Post Release Community Supervision for a previous narcotics and firearm conviction in the California Superior Court.
- In September 2021, Joseph Anthony Martino, a convicted felon with a long criminal history that prevents him from legally owning guns, was sentenced in federal court to 10 years in prison for kidnapping and possessing firearms. Martino admitted that on April 1, 2019, he held three people hostage at his Lakeside home, pointing loaded guns – including a fully automatic assault rifle - at their heads and threatening them.
These cases are part of the DOJ’s initiative to reduce gun violence known as Project Safe Neighborhoods. PSN is an evidence-based program proven to be effective at reducing violent crime. Through PSN, a broad spectrum of stakeholders works together to identify the most pressing violent crime problems in the community and develops comprehensive prosecution and community outreach solutions to address them.
To ensure our firearm prosecutions maintained strategic focus on the most significant threats to public safety, Acting U.S. Attorney Grossman and the district’s PSN Coordinator, Assistant U.S. Attorney Connie Wu, joined forces with the District Attorney’s Office Gangs Division leadership to convene state, local, and federal law enforcement agencies for the Combatting Gang Violence to Restore Public Safety Summit this past summer. This summit, which will now occur quarterly, is a collaborative effort to identify and address the most significant drivers of violent crime in our district.
In addition to individual firearm prosecutions, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has conducted a number of large-scale takedowns with federal and local law enforcement partners that have made a direct impact on public safety in San Diego.
- In April 2021, a federal grand jury indicted 47 people allegedly associated with illegal gambling establishments that were closely tied to gangs, drugs and violence and had become magnets for a wide variety of criminal activity. Many were charged with Felon in Possession of a Firearm and felon in possession of ammunition. In all, 35 people were arrested, and 44 firearms, more than 12 pounds of methamphetamine, $263,000 in cash, and 640 gambling machines were seized during the two-year investigation.
- In May 2021, 23 documented gang members and associates were charged with heroin, methamphetamine and firearms trafficking. This yearlong investigation involved federal wiretaps, dozens of undercover drug and gun buys and extensive surveillance. Many of the defendants are documented members or associates of violent South Bay street gangs operating out of National City, San Ysidro, and elsewhere. Many of these gang have long-standing ties to the Mexican Mafia. In total, authorities seized 2.1 kilograms of methamphetamine, 160 grams of heroin, and nine firearms tied to these defendants during the investigation.
- In June 2021, 60 alleged members of a San Diego-based international methamphetamine distribution network tied to the Sinaloa Cartel were charged with drug trafficking, money laundering and firearms offenses. In addition to these arrests, law enforcement has seized more than 220 pounds of methamphetamine and other illegal drugs; 90 firearms; and more than $250,000 in cash.
The federal effort to fight violent crime is not limited to prosecutions. “We are using every tool – not just enforcement, but also prevention and intervention – to make our community safer,” Grossman said. “One of our greatest weapons in combatting violent crime is to combine proven law enforcement methods and expertise with the resources of credible “lived experience” messengers and trusted community organizations.”
To that end, the district’s Project Safe Neighborhoods Task Force has made an unprecedented investment in public safety by awarding more than $1 million in federal over the last two years for distribution to local law enforcement and community organizations to prevent gun violence, facilitate reentry, reduce gang membership, foster safer neighborhoods and research/measure program effectiveness. The most recent grants, approved by DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Assistance last week, include:
- The San Diego City Attorney’s Office received money to help fund its Gun Recovery Impact Program, known as GRIP, which proactively seeks Gun Violence Restraining Orders, a life-saving tool created by California’s “red flag” law to prevent predictable acts of gun violence by removing firearms from individuals who pose a threat to themselves or others. Following a hearing in open court, a judge can prohibit the individual from possessing or purchasing firearms or ammunition for at least one year.
- Rise Up Industries’ (RUI) Reentry Program opened in Santee in March 2016. It helps previously incarcerated, formerly gang-involved individuals to successfully reenter society; thereby reducing the gang population and the recidivism rate. RUI’s Reentry Program provides comprehensive services including employment, job-training, case management, tattoo removal, counseling, mentoring, education assistance, financial literacy, life skills training, and work ethic development. RUI pays full-time wages to Reentry Program members as they work their way through the program.
- San Diego Association of Governments, the regional clearinghouse for crime data, received a grant to enhance its tracking of crimes that involve firearms around the region. This would include the use of a firearm in violent crime and providing information regarding where these crimes are occurring, tracking calls for service related to the use of firearms, and interviewing arrestees regarding their use of firearms and ghost guns.
- Vista Community Clinic received a grant to support its “Resilience” program, which helps justice system-involved youth chart a more positive life course. The program serves teens in the City of Oceanside which faces challenges created by multiple gangs with hundreds of members, many of them minors.
The PSN Task Force awarded additional grants in prior months to several mentoring and/or reentry organizations, including Boys & Girls Club of Oceanside; Education COMPACT; El Centro Police Athletic League; the Imperial County Gang Intelligence Coalition; Inner City Athletics; Reality Changers; Star Pal; UPAC; Vista Community Clinic and Youth Empowerment. Moreover, the Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice received a research grant to recommend data collection protocols, measure program effectiveness, and research best practices for “lived experience” mentoring programs.
In addition to PSN grants, the Southern District of California runs two prevention programs that focus on character building and mentoring. Project LEAD – San Diego, an adaptation of the program started in Los Angeles, is an 8-week program designed to help fifth-grade students understand that the choices they make today can affect their lives forever. Since 2016, the U. S. Attorney’s office has recruited 286 volunteer teachers who have reached 2,816 students. Several local and federal agencies were involved in this effort in addition to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, including: the U.S. Coast Guard, DEA, the San Diego City Attorney’s Office, the U.S. Marshals Service, Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Secret Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Food and Drug Administration, San Diego Police Department, U.S. Probation, Pretrial Services, the State Department, Department of Corrections, Homeland Security Investigations, and the Internal Revenue Service.
While currently on hold due to the pandemic, for more than five years the office also ran the Success Agents mentoring program at Porter Elementary. At the Success Agents weekly workshop, law enforcement mentors worked in a fun and interactive way to help 4th and 5th grade students improve life skills, build confidence and promote a positive relationship with law enforcement. The program also supports families through resource referrals, parent meetings and holiday dinners offered by program partners.
The U.S. Attorney’s office is also a longstanding member of the Community Assistance Support Team (CAST), an organization that works to prevent gang-related gun violence and support victims. By building relationships and communicating directly with gang members, residents and law enforcement, CAST volunteers identify the sources of gun violence in specific neighborhoods and connect individuals with the help they may need, such as gang exit resources, mental health services or alternative methods to resolving conflicts. During the recent violent crime spike, the office supported and participated in CAST Season of Peace events calling for an end to gun violence.