Friday, November 27, 2009

Police raid puts an Atwater Village family in the spotlight
Neighbors know the father as an upstanding, church-going citizen. Police said he aided the Toonerville gang.
By Robert Faturechi

November 27, 2009

Larry Madrid, 63, says he wakes up every morning at 4:30 a.m. sharp, gets out of bed and checks his front door.

Four months have passed since police busted down the door to the small Atwater Village home his family has owned for generations, handcuffing him and his son as part of an early-morning gang sweep. But the feelings of violation are still fresh.

"You can't imagine how belittling it was," said Madrid, a soft-spoken Vietnam-era veteran with a graying mustache and a fatherly paunch. "They didn't even let my son's girlfriend get dressed. They pulled her out in her panties and a tank top and they're all men out there."

According to police, Madrid allowed members of the notorious Toonerville street gang to store guns and drugs in his home. The longtime resident, who has no criminal record, is being charged with possession of an illegal assault weapon with a gang enhancement. In a search of his property, authorities found 48 firearms, most of which were unregistered or stolen, according to court records. They were stashed all over, one under a sofa cushion, others in an ottoman, more in the attic.

Madrid, a lifetime member of the National Rifle Assn., says he's simply a gun enthusiast with dozens of collectibles, some dating as far back as the Civil War. He flatly denies the charges against him.

The raid has befuddled some residents in the tightknit neighborhood, who have come to know Madrid as a caring father and an upstanding and active community member.

"This is crazy," said Noemi Velazquez, 47, a neighbor. "He goes to church every weekend and he's always very active in the community." Velasquez recalled Madrid's being the first to offer a hand as she moved into her home across the street five years ago. Other residents echoed similar sentiments about the Madrids, but the city attorney's office says police have received anonymous complaints about gang activity on the property.

Madrid, who worked as an administrator at a trucking company for more than two decades, retired recently to focus on the criminal charges he faces.

According to court files, police served half a dozen search warrants on the morning of July 9 within Toonerville street gang turf, an area north of Los Feliz Boulevard between San Fernando Road and the Los Angeles River. Law enforcement agents arrested some 20 alleged members of the predominantly Latino gang, including four murder suspects, and a dozen others on charges of drug and weapons violations.

The district attorney's case against Madrid is bolstered by several wiretapped conversations, which prosecutors contend show an intimate connection between Madrid and Toonerville. In one call, an alleged gang member and an unknown male discuss a gun stored in the backyard of the Madrid home. In another, Madrid calls an alleged gang member to tell him a gun was lost and ask him if he'd moved it.

Prosecutors also point to a Toonerville plaque allegedly found in Madrid's garage. The family says the plaque is a relic from the 1950s, crafted by a relative when Toonerville was not nearly as destructive. The plaque, they say, sat on a shelf, along with the younger Madrid's car club plaques, for decades. In addition to the criminal case, Madrid and his two sons are also named as gang associates in a civil complaint filed by the city attorney's office. The lawsuit seeks to eliminate alleged gang activity at the home and could result in their eviction.

Madrid says he worked hard to steer his two sons away from the gangbanging so prevalent in their community. He offered them alternatives, like sports and automobiles, and responded proudly when other parents solicited tips to keep their own kids clean.

The city's lawsuit took Madrid's older son, Lawrence, by surprise. The Department of Water and Power employee, who has no criminal record, says he hasn't lived in the family home for more than five years. The city attorney's office said that new information presented by the elder son has spurred the office to reconsider whether he should continue to be named in the complaint.

Madrid's younger son, Dustin, a bookish-looking 30-year-old, has no criminal record and is employed by Cal State Northridge, most recently as a locksmith apprentice, a position that generally requires an extensive background check.

He admits to having relationships with peers in the community, some of whom are gang members. They have attended summer barbecues in his backyard, watched baseball games at his home and occasionally lent a hand as he worked on vintage cars in his driveway. Completely cutting off relations with all of his gang-affiliated peers would draw unwanted attention, he said.

"We grew up with these people," he said. "We're family friends with their families. It's hard not to be. You're gonna see these people all the time. You can't avoid it," he said.

Although he was home at the time of the raid and also arrested, prosecutors declined to file charges against Dustin Madrid.

The senior Madrid said he expects his attorney to push for a plea agreement that will keep him out of prison. But if he is convicted, he faces up to 12 years.

His early retirement has left him with a pension but no health insurance, a major loss because he has diabetes and takes several prescription medicines daily.

Sitting outside his garage -- where he's posted several "No Gang Members" signs since the incident -- he greets passersby by name. Local residents still can't be sure what to believe. Many stop by to chat, but Madrid said he worries the family's reputation won't recover.

"People look at us differently now because they think we're gang members," he said. "Our records are crystal clean. They're trying to do guilt by association."