SAN PABLO -- Investigators dismantled an extensive gang-operated methamphetamine ring centered in Contra Costa County and spreading across the entire Bay Area, indicting 17 defendants, authorities announced Wednesday.
U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag led a news conference at San Pablo City Hall highlighting the results of the two-year investigation, dubbed Operation Red Reach, that seized an estimated $7.1 million in crystal methamphetamine and dealt a blow to a sizable drug-trafficking operation orchestrated by a street gang lieutenant.
"These are extremely dangerous and ruthless individuals," said Larry Wallace, law enforcement deputy director for the state Department of Justice.
San Pablo police spearheaded the investigation that grew to include state and federal agents.
"This began as a grass-roots local investigation," said Chief Walter Schuld. "We knew this was going to have a lasting effect."
The defendants are Joseph Abbate -- described as a gang leader -- Sean Beckett, Mark Bruno, Reginald Carter, Tom Cordova, Billie Dempsey, Edward Espiritu, James Esver, Michael Lawrence, Honorato Padilla, Deonzelle Pierce, David Reams, Gary Rondeau, Ramon Rubio, Michael Sanchez, Magen Schwartz and Juan Lopez.
Everyone but Schwartz, the lone female defendant, is in custody, Haag said. She is being sought by authorities.
The defendants reside in San Pablo, Richmond, El Sobrante, Hercules, Pinole, Rodeo, Martinez and Antioch. Schuld said all of them are either gang members or associates.
The group is charged with 16 counts related to the distribution and possession of methamphetamine, with each individual count carrying a maximum sentence of at least 10 years. Each defendant is attached to at least one of the counts and many have multiple charges.
Most of the defendants were arraigned before a federal magistrate in Oakland this week and pleaded not guilty. The indictments cover alleged drug activity between Sept. 27, 2010, and April 15.
A total of 35 arrests, including the indictments, were made during the two-year investigation, according to state officials.
On top of seizing 135 pounds of meth, agents also confiscated $86,000 cash, 26 firearms -- including assault rifles -- and six vehicles. They also found an assortment of bulletproof vests when they served search warrants in the past month. Police are looking into two weapons that might be tied to a homicide.
The officials at Wednesday's news conference were tight-lipped about most details of the bust, saying they did not want to harm the investigation. But an affidavit filed by FBI special agents Patrick Ernst and Gregory Eckhart, based on surveillance involving defendants Abbate, Rubio and Padilla, offers a glimpse into some of the activities.
In the filing, the agents detail a wiretapped telephone conversation the morning of Sept. 30, between Abbate and Rubio in which they are said to be discussing drug debts and exchanging a half-pound of methamphetamine. That yields more than 2,000 "points," or units of the drug for sale.
"OK, five minutes or less my boy is there," Rubio is recorded as saying.
Later that morning, the agents observed Padilla drive up to a Hercules home linked to Abbate, and leave less than five minutes later. The agents believe that the visit was Padilla delivering methamphetamine to Abbate on behalf of Rubio.
Authorities said the meth ring was an offshoot of a sophisticated Mexican drug-trafficking empire spanning Interstate 5 from the Mexican border to Washington state. It's an ongoing battle, the state attorney general said.
"We are fighting transnational gangs from one end of California to another," Kamala Harris said in a statement. "With the cooperation of local and federal law enforcement agencies, we're going to outmuscle, outsmart and undo them."
The wide-ranging probe began with an investigation by the West Contra Costa Narcotics Enforcement Team, or WestNET, which comprises officers from local police agencies. Leading the effort was San Pablo Detective Brian Bubar and the FBI's Eckhart, Schuld said.
Also participating were Solano County authorities, police from Richmond, Hercules and Pinole, the Contra Costa Sheriff's Office, the Contra Costa District Attorney's Office, the California Highway Patrol and federal immigration agents.
"This is a model of multiagency cooperation," Wallace said.
Staff writer Karl Fischer contributed to this report. Contact Robert Salonga at 925-943-8013. Follow him at Twitter.com/robertsalonga.
17 people indicted
135 pounds of meth seized, worth $7.1 million
26 firearms seized
At least $86,000 seized
Six vehicles seized