A Lompoc Police corporal whose expertise lies in gang culture and activity, kicked off testimony Tuesday it the trial of two alleged gang members who are being retried for the murder of a rival gang member in 2015.
Jesse "Dizzy" Lara, an alleged high-ranking member of the Westside VLP gang, was killed on June 6, 2015, following an altercation that involved two alleged members of the rival 62Brims gang, Edward Carter and Dequan Matthews. It is alleged that Matthews wielded the knife that killed Lara.
Last year, the pair were acquitted of first-degree murder, and the jury was hung on the lesser charges of second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter.
The defense has argued that the pair, along with two other men, Damian Simpson and a juvenile referred to as Mr. B, were on their way to a party when Lara and several other men instigated the fight by throwing a beer can into the Neon driven by Carter.
The prosecution's first witness, Cpl. Sergio Arias, gave general background on criminal street gangs, specific gangs in Lompoc, gang activity, culture and the recruitment process.
In Lompoc, there are four primary gangs, he said -- Westside VLP, SouthSide, 62Brims (Six Deuce Brims) and the Central Coast Crips. Under questioning by Deputy District Attorney Lynmarc Jenkins, Arias said he knew Lara was a VLP member.
Gangs can be comprised of three or more people, and are formed to function as a criminal organization, Arias said. They often congregate in specific territories or neighborhoods in a community where they operate, he added.
In these territories, gangs can make money by selling drugs and weapons in that specific neighborhood. If a rival gang member were to cross that territory, consequences can be expected, Arias testified.
Arias also gave specific examples of gang territories or "lookout" points in Lompoc where gang members keep watch for cops, including the alley next to Arbor Square Apartments and the trailer park on the 400 block of North M Street.
Arias said that "gangs also often operate through violence, fear and intimidation," and "check on 'snitches' who cooperate with law enforcement."
Once a witness snitches to police, they'll be marked by the gang for retaliation, so it makes it tough on police to crack gang-related crimes, as everyone fears the gang, he added.
Arias added that gangs also often recruit young runaway juveniles whose parents are absent in their home life. The ideal candidates are couch surfers, and are provided food, clothing and the promise from gang members that they'll be taken care of.
They're also often taken along on "missions," whether it be something simple as tagging a wall with graffiti or something much more violent, like a stabbing, said Arias, who likened the process to "an apprenticeship."
In addition to using violence and fear as tactics to successfully operate as a criminal street gang, they operate under the system referred to as "The Three R's," Arias added, retaliation, reputation and respect.
"You build reputation or status by committing crimes," he said. "To gangs, it's a different type of success. You start young, and the more violent your crime, the better the reputation. The reputation is fueled by fear, and that's how gangs can also maintain respect."
As for retaliation, a gang member always pledges that when confronted with any kind of fight or challenge, no matter how minute, the challenge is returned, Arias said.
"Each incident [instigated] by a rival gang will result in retaliation," he added. "If I got into a fistfight and lost, I need to respond in a bigger way next time -- either by bringing a bat, or even a gun or knife, or more gang members."
Testimony resumes Wednesday morning.