When I read of the indictment last week of 48 Nuestra Familia members in a wave of robberies, murder and other crimes, what struck me immediately wasn't the details of their charges. It was their street names -- handles like Gordo, Green Eyes, Tweety, Lunatic, Boots and Creeper.
The traditional criminal moniker has suffered a sad decline over the past 25 years because of two forces -- the increasing respectability of the Italian mob and the ebbing of tabloids. They were made for each other like Joey Chestnut and Nathan's hot dogs.
The old mob nicknames always tickled us with stories. Tony "the Ant" Spilotro was so named because an FBI agent called him "that pissant." Tony Accardo, known as "Joe Batters," reputedly got his name because Al Capone admired his skill in beating people with a bat. And Sam "Golf Bag" Hunt, a Capone hit man, brought a shotgun in a golf bag when he was working.
The Mafia could be cruel -- but they also had humorous names that played on food or personal foibles. Joe Bonnano was "Joe Bananas." New Jersey mobster Vincent Palermo was "Vinny Ocean." And Joseph Ugitano was known as "Joey Cupcakes."
Compared to all that, the Nuestra Familia's street names are pithier, punchier and -- even when they suggest danger -- more respectful. Among the people who were indicted last week were a Nightmare and a Dreamer, a Baby Angel and a Bolo, a Conejo and a Smokey.
The police have found that California street names often have a link with graffiti: A nickname can be embedded in a tag on a wall. None of the snarky wit of a tabloid writer appears here, or the odd juxtapositions of the Italian mob. These names often reveal a dreamy, artistic side.
Not so mysterious
What does it all mean? "It isn't as mysterious as people think," says Santa Clara County deputy district attorney Scott Tsui, who is prosecuting the case. "Look at the standard baseball team. Everyone has a handle. It's a little bit of that."
But make no mistake. The monikers matter, both to the cops and the gang members. No self-respecting big city police department would be without access to a database that lists the known nicknames of gang members. On the street, gangsters generally know the moniker rather than the formal name. And the name can signal something to both friend and opponent.
In his book, "Nuestra Familia: A Broken Paradigm," ex-Nuestra Familia member John Mendoza says his nickname was "Boxer," a reference to a short boxing career and a preference for violence. In a prison block surrounded by opposing Sureno gang members, he didn't use "John."
In August, during a crime spree in San Jose, I visited the site of one of the crimes listed in last week's indictment, the fatal shooting of a 38-year-old man named Martin Chacon near Old Oakland Road and Charles Street.
About all we knew was that Chacon had been sitting in a Chevy Impala when he was hit. While they weren't giving out details, the cops signaled it was probably gang-related.
The indictment last week filled in a few gaps. The authorities have blamed the killing on four men: "Bird," "Young Buck," "Joe," and "Ruben Cruz" -- the last one apparently a real name.
Not tabloid stuff. But the question arose: Without street names to plug in their database, would cops have more trouble solving such a killing?