San Diego prosecutors have begun accusing local pimps of working for gangs, saying that prostitution is being used to strengthen a gang’s power and presence in the community.

In four recent cases, prosecutors have successfully argued for an additional gang penalty under law enforcement’s long-held belief that prostitution is the latest criminal enterprise for street gangs, much like drug dealing was for the previous generation.

Getting tagged with the gang allegation has serious consequences for anyone convicted of a crime. For each charge of pimping, the allegation raises the maximum sentence from six to 10 years in prison and makes the conviction a strike under California’s three-strike rule.

So far, no one has challenged the new connection being drawn by prosecutors, even though they have relied on pieces of indirect evidence to argue for it. Under California law, prosecutors can add the gang allegation to any felony.

Even in Los Angeles — the reputed gang capital of the world — prosecutors have argued for the gang allegation in only six pimping cases, starting in 2008, Los Angeles district attorney spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons said. In San Diego, prosecutors have convicted at least four men, starting this year.

In court filings, prosecutors have promised to show how pimping actually benefits a gang, which is one of the gang allegations key requirements. They say it promoted a street gang’s power, aided in the recruitment of young men by showcasing a glamorous lifestyle and boosted the gang’s treasury. They’ve never had to come through on assertions, however, because every case has ended before trial, which happens in most pimping cases.

Securing a conviction on the gang allegation doesn’t always mean directly linking the defendant’s alleged crime to the gang. It often comes down to showing — usually through expert testimony — that the defendant’s behavior fits into a pattern of gang activities. It could be as simple as having a police officer speculating on how a drive-by shooting fits into a violent feud between rival gangs.

A number of researchers in the field remain skeptical of the connection. Jorja Leap, a sociologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, said she’s been working with gang members for 30 years and has only known of only one or two that were pimps.

“I’m fascinated that they are doing this in San Diego,” she said.

Deputy District Attorney Gretchen Means has been the champion behind charging San Diego pimps with the gang allegation. She worked on the county’s first cases, which resulted from a multi-agency investigation of the Lincoln Park street gang in 2008.

The investigation netted dozens of people accused of various crimes, but Means said it had larger implications for prosecuting pimps in San Diego.

The Investigations

The Lincoln Park investigations — called Operations Bloodsucker and Lucky Strike — focused on active gang members involved in the drug trade. The gang, named after the southeastern San Diego neighborhood, is described as one of the city’s most violent.

Federal and local agencies obtained court orders in early 2008 to wiretap phones of suspected Lincoln Park gang members, including Marcus House, 27, and Donny Love, 20. Part of the broad investigation led authorities to believe the two men were soliciting prostitutes. Two other alleged gang members, Brandon Duncan, 27, and James Calloway, 21, were later identified as suspected pimps.

“These four guys popped up in the middle of our radar screen and they were so blatant about [pimping] in conversation that we had no choice but to pursue it,” said Lt. Jorge Duran, who leads the Police Department’s gang unit. “Those guys were actually working together.”

Between House and Love, law enforcement agencies intercepted more than 11,000 phone calls and text messages between Feb. 14, 2008, and June 14, 2009. The wiretaps caught explicit conversations discussing their operations with prostitutes, each other and other gang members.

Each man followed the isolated behavior of most pimps, but the broader investigation showed police a new side of pimping in San Diego, they say. Although the men primarily managed their own prostitutes, other men from the same gang would assist in the operation.

This epiphany was the foundation upon which the prosecution built its case for the new gang allegation.

In order to prove California’s gang allegation, the prosecution must show the crime was committed in association with a criminal street gang and that it was specifically intended to promote the gang’s activities. A gang is defined as three or more people.

Means argued in court filings that the prosecution had direct evidence of the four men — three of whom police say admitted gang membership — were working collectively and in association with other members of the Lincoln Park street gang. Although she promised further testimony if the cases went to trial, the information in the wiretaps lays out the case.

The Wiretaps

The men talked about carpooling to Arizona with their prostitutes. They shared advice on how to intimidate prostitutes into obedience, and they strategized about placing prostitutes across the city to make more money. They frequently used language, like “Blood” and “on Lincoln Park,” to express their fraternity or the seriousness of a threat.

“Gang pimps protected the prostitutes because the females were considered assets for bringing money into the gang,” Means wrote in Love’s trial brief.

In one instance, a prostitute called Love’s cell phone because a john threatened to shoot her over $30. Another man, identified by police as a fellow Lincoln Park gang member, picked up the phone and told the woman he would come to her aid. Love was in the shower, he told her.

Before the Lincoln Park wiretaps, police say they had never collected such direct evidence of men working to collectively manage prostitutes across the city. Police have always known that individual pimps travel to other cities with their prostitutes, beat women to keep them in line and keep a close eye on their activities.

They say they didn’t know that pimps from the same gang worked so closely in these efforts.

Proving the Benefit to the Gang

However, in each of the Lincoln Park cases, Means presented no direct evidence for the gang allegation’s second requirement. Had any of the cases gone to court, she would have relied on expert testimony — circumstantial evidence — to show the crimes benefitted the gang. She argued in court filings that pimping promoted the gang’s stature through fear among women and financially benefitted gang members.

Prosecutors often have trouble with gang allegation cases because there’s no direct evidence showing that a crime benefitted a gang. Duran, the police officer, said a gang expert will usually testify about how a particular crime may increase the gang treasury. Sometimes the testimony is as simple as explaining how money is used to initiate gang activities.

“Just by the mere fact that they now have a revenue stream from the girls, they now have more influence … on younger members who are more dangerous because they’re trying to build a reputation,” Duran said.

Duran explains it this way: In gangs, money is power, and the money earned through pimping could be dispersed to other members for completing “jobs.” If a pimp wants to physically punish one of his prostitutes, he might pay another gang member to beat her.

The prosecution never proved that the four men convicted of pimping and the gang allegation actually paid other gang members with the money they earned through pimping.

It’s also uncertain whether their pimping activities actually supported the gang in the ways presented by the prosecution. These arguments are law enforcement’s theories of the relationship that the men chose not to dispute in court, because they could have faced a higher prison sentence if convicted by a jury. The defense attorneys who represented the men and handled the plea deals did not return messages seeking comment.

The Skeptics

Malcolm Klein, a retired professor of sociology at the University of Southern California, expressed disappointment that the men pleaded guilty to the gang enhancement charge. He frequently plays the opposite role of Duran as a gang expert for defense attorneys, and questioned whether San Diego prosecutors could have proven benefit to a jury. Proving that, he said, is normally the biggest obstacle to winning the gang enhancement.

Matt Braner is an appellate attorney for the San Diego Public Defender’s Office who calls himself “inherently skeptical” of gang experts in law enforcement and how prosecutors rely on them in gang allegation cases. He questioned whether this case would be used as probable cause to argue for wiretaps on other pimps.

“It’s interesting that one case makes somebody an expert,” Braner said.

Means described the Lincoln Park investigation as a breakthrough in prosecuting pimps in San Diego, because police experts could testify to the gang relationship in other cases. Duran didn’t go that far, saying not all gangs use the same structure for managing prostitutes.

Even after his guilty plea in October, Love denied that his two identities were connected. At his sentencing in November, he submitted an apology letter to the court on yellow loose-leaf paper that expressed his frustration.

“It was hard for me to swallow (the conviction) knowing I didn’t do this for a gang or to benefit a gang. I did it for Donny Love,” he said. A judge sentenced him to serve six years in prison, including two for the gang allegation.

Please contact Keegan Kyle directly at keegan.kyle@voiceofsandiego.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/keegankyle.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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