The white supremacist gang Public Enemy No. 1 began two decades ago as a group of teenage punk-rock fans from upper-middle class bedroom communities in Southern California.
Now, the violent gang that deals in drugs, guns and identity theft is gaining clout across the West after forging an alliance with the notorious Aryan Brotherhood, authorities say.
Police say the gang has compiled a “hit list” targeting five officers and a gang prosecutor — a sign of just how brazen Public Enemy has become.
“They make police officers very, very nervous,” said Cpl. Nate Booth, a gang detective with the Buena Park Police Department in Orange County.
Law enforcement officials trace the gang’s rise to shifts in the power structure inside prisons.
The Aryan Brotherhood has long been the dominant white supremacist gang behind bars, with the Nazi Low Riders acting as its foot soldiers on the outside for drug dealing and identity theft.
'We find them everywhere'
In 2000, officials reclassified the Low Riders as a prison-based gang and began sending its members to solitary confinement as soon as they were imprisoned.
The crackdown hurt the gang’s ability to interact with the Aryan Brotherhood, which turned to Public Enemy, authorities say. The alliance was cemented in 2005 when Donald Reed “Popeye” Mazza, an alleged leader of Public Enemy, was inducted into the Aryan Brotherhood.
The pact has increased Public Enemy’s wealth and recruiting power, said Steve Slaten, a special agent for the California Department of Corrections.
In the past three years, its ranks have doubled to at least 400, but authorities suspect there could be hundreds of other members operating under the radar. They said heavy recruiting is taking place throughout California and Arizona, and members have been picked up by police in Nevada and Idaho.
“They move around. We find them everywhere,” said Lowell Smith of the Orange County Probation Department.
The gang traces its roots to the punk rock subculture in Long Beach in the 1980s. It soon shifted its base to nearby Orange County and in the 1990s began recruiting what police call “bored latchkey kids” — white teenagers from upper-middle class neighborhoods.
Public Enemy is now involved in identity theft. Booth said the gang has gone from swiping personal information from mailboxes and trash to stealing entire credit profiles with the help of girlfriends and wives who take jobs at banks, mortgage companies and even state motor vehicle departments.
Money from those operations is used to fuel its methamphetamine business, he said.
Two months ago, police agencies in Orange County arrested 67 suspected members after learning about the hit list against officers in Anaheim, Buena Park and Costa Mesa. Those arrested in the raid were charged with conspiracy to commit murder, possession of illegal weapons and identity theft, among other things. Police have not released their names or further details because the investigation is continuing.
Booth recalled another case in which a member of the gang fired dozens of rounds at police from a car driven by his girlfriend during a high-speed freeway pursuit. After being arrested, the man was taken to an emergency room, where he grabbed a scalpel and tried to slash a deputy before cutting himself, Booth said.
Authorities worry that Public Enemy is using stolen credit information to learn the home addresses of police and their families. Some officers have gone to court to have addresses removed from those records, Booth said.