RICHMOND -- With gunplay heating up and the city rattled by a series of brazen, daylight shootings, law enforcement units launched a wiretap operation this spring that resulted in 23 arrests on a range of charges, including conspiracy to commit murder.
Local, county and federal law enforcement officials on Wednesday revealed details of the two-month wiretap program that targeted five cellular and landline telephones, saying they ultimately thwarted several planned shootings. In addition to the arrests, police said they seized 17 handguns and $11,400 in cash as part of the operation and acted on intelligence to thwart ordered hits before they occurred.
"We prevented people from being killed or shot," District Attorney Mark Peterson said during a news conference Wednesday.
Code-named "Operation Exodus," the taps listened in on calls made by suspected members of "Deep C," a central Richmond gang police say has been behind violent crime in the city for years.
The taps were authorized by a federal judge and reviewed and reauthorized every 10 days, officials said. They focused on a subset of Deep C whose members are based in the Pullman Point Housing Complex, according to documents filed in Contra Costa County Superior Court. Police believe intra-neighborhood beefs fueled the escalating violence involving Deep C.
Police say they have made several car stops and raids on homes since June acting on intercepted phone calls to thwart retaliatory violence. In one case, police say they arrested four men and recovered several guns after chasing a car they knew was intended to be used in a drive-by shooting.
The operation began on the heels of a stretch of deadly violence earlier this year.
In response to the escalating violence, Richmond police joined the Contra Costa County District Attorney's Office and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in starting "Operation Exodus."
At the same time, police were working with Operation Ceasefire, a violence-prevention program that uses community members, clergy, police and the District Attorney's Office to reach out to individuals deemed likely to commit violence.
Ceasefire workers held numerous meetings with ex-felons and suspected gang members, appealing to them with job-training programs and internship opportunities. Police say they were listening in without Ceasefire workers' knowledge as many of the same young men conspired to commit murders and other violent acts over their cellphones.
"What we heard was shocking," Richmond police Capt. Mark Gagan said. "Blatant orders to kill were being given."
Richmond police Chief Chris Magnus called the conversations "chilling."
In one instance, police listened in July 15 to phone chatter revealing that four gang members were armed and set to commit a drive-by shooting at an undisclosed apartment complex. When the suspects reached the target, police were waiting.
A high-speed chase ensued, and the suspects were captured when spike strips disabled their car on Highway 37 in Sonoma County.
Deputy District Attorney Tom Kensok said one of the 12 charged with conspiracy to commit murder, Todd Gillard, participated by making phone calls from County Jail. Kensok said Gillard did not use a smuggled cellphone but acknowledged "there are people with cellphones in custody."
Kensok said most of the violence in the city involves "rival gangs" and that the crimes the wiretap revealed were no exception.
"It isn't drug-related," Kensok said. "It's of a personal, retaliatory nature between the gangs."
Magnus said the violence between neighborhood gangs is "often very random. It can be as simple as someone feeling slighted on Facebook."
Gagan said the continuing partnership with Ceasefire is "inherently fragile" because Ceasefire service providers must maintain independence from police to remain effective in working with young men who distrust police.
On May 22, a suspected North Richmond gang member was arrested after detectives witnessed a shooting in the area of Kelsey Street and Alamo Avenue in North Richmond just before 4 p.m. Two detectives and two Ceasefire volunteers were in an unmarked vehicle and had just left the residence of another suspected gang member.
Ceasefire volunteers routinely visit young men on lists compiled by police of "at-risk" offenders, imploring them to join job-training programs and refrain from violence.
Antwon Johnson, 19, fired off several rounds in the street, police said. While Ceasefire volunteers ducked in the back seat, both detectives bolted from the car, chased Johnson through several backyards and arrested him, police said. Johnson was later charged with murdering Plair.
Several Ceasefire volunteers acknowledged that they were uncomfortable that clandestine surveillance was conducted without their knowledge and trained on young men they were trying to help.
Rachel Lee Holstein, director of development for Rubicon Programs, a partner in the Ceasefire movement, declined to comment when asked whether the surveillance program and subsequent arrests have imperiled Ceasefire.
"The work we do translates to decreased violence; the model is working," Holstein said. "We're not going to back out of Ceasefire."
There have been 12 homicides this year in Richmond, putting the city on pace to match last year's total of 18, the lowest total in a decade.