An investigation that so far has netted 39 arrests mostly in Flagstaff in connection with a statewide crime ring Tuesday began in mid-May 2015 -- the same month a Coconino County jury convicted Michael "Buddy" Vallejos, 24, of second-degree murder.
Now, it appears Vallejos’ trial for the 2013 gang-related stabbing death of 23-year-old Juan Hernandez in Flagstaff’s Southside neighborhood played a pivotal role in this week’s sting targeting violent crime and narcotics trafficking in Coconino, Maricopa and Navajo counties.
“My understanding is that some of these leads stirred up out of that trial of Michael Vallejos, who is an Eastside Bloods gang member,” said Flagstaff Police Department spokesman Sgt. Cory Runge, who was unable to provide specific details.
FPD and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives announced Tuesday that more than 100 law enforcement officers had conducted 38 predawn arrests and executed search warrants in Flagstaff, Glendale, Winslow and Page. FPD made a 39th arrest later in the afternoon.
At least 25 Flagstaff-area residents are now facing felony charges in connection with the sting, dubbed “Operation Nightfall.” The Daily Sun was able to confirm the new charges for all but seven of those suspects. It is believed to be the largest single arrest operation ever conducted in Flagstaff. Three suspects were arrested in Page, as well.
Among those arrested in Flagstaff was Vallejos’ mother, Lisa Vallejos, 47, who was charged with three new counts of transportation or sale of dangerous drugs. She has an extensive criminal history and has previously been named as a defendant in more than 60 cases in Flagstaff Municipal, Flagstaff Justice and Coconino County Superior courts.
“Pretty much everybody on this list is a career criminal from what I can see,” Runge said. “Many of the names have been associated with crime in Flagstaff for more than a decade.”
He said FPD expects the arrests will reduce the city’s crime rate going forward.
“Many of the property crimes that are occurring in Flagstaff, we expect and we hope that we will see a decrease in those and a decrease in the rate of burglary-related violence and crimes in the near future,” Runge said.
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He also said some of those arrested were associated with Flagstaff’s Eastside Bloods street gang, the Arizona incarnation of the Mexican Mafia prison gang, and Glendale’s Grandel street gang, which is suspected of supplying large amounts of methamphetamine to northern Arizona.
“They’re legitimate gangbangers down there,” Runge said. “Our lower-level gang members up here are somehow affiliated with them. That then starts creating real gangs here in Flagstaff, which we don’t like.”
The suspects were arrested on a variety of felony charges, including trafficking in narcotics and other drugs.
According to a press release, ATF agents and members of Metro joined forces with federal, state, county and local law enforcement agencies in northern Arizona to address the spike of narcotics trafficking and violent crime in Coconino County. The investigators used a number of techniques, including undercover operations, background investigations and targeting of violent repeat offenders in possession of firearms and narcotics. They conducted more than 100 controlled purchases of drug and weapons for the investigation, obtaining more than 5 pounds of methamphetamine, 90 grams of heroin and eight firearms as evidence.
The investigation implicated 50 defendants in various crimes involving racketeering, control/participation in a criminal enterprise, felons in possession of firearms, aggravated assault, armed robberies, narcotics distribution, money laundering, wire fraud, trafficking in stolen property, misconduct involving weapons and the burglary of more than 60 firearms.
Collectively, according to the joint statement, the 50 defendants have been indicted on 127 felony charges. They have 156 prior felony convictions, and 518 prior arrests.
The task force was still looking Wednesday for 11 suspects wanted in connection with the crime ring. Five were listed as fugitives with active warrants and six were listed as persons of interest. The charges and their places of residence were not specified. The investigation is ongoing.
The following agencies participated in the investigation: ATF Flagstaff, including its Phoenix office, Flagstaff Police Department, Metro Narcotics, Navajo County Drug Task Force (M-CAT), Coconino County Sheriff’s Office, Coconino County Detention Facility, Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS), Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), United States Marshal’s Service, Page Police Department, Winslow Police Department, Glendale Police Department, Federal Bureau of Investigations. The Arizona Attorney General’s Office, Coconino County Attorney’s Office, Navajo County Attorney’s Office and the United States Attorney’s Office are prosecuting the cases.
*Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Flagstaff Police Department Sgt. Cory Runge said, “Many of the property crimes that are occurring in Flagstaff, we expect and we hope that we will see a decrease in those and a decrease in the rate of burglary-related violence and crimes in the near future."