Operation Garlic Press: Criminals caught off guard

Gilroy Police Department Chief Denise Turner. File photo.

Criminals knew him as Bobby, a powerful, high-class crook with lots of connections. They knew his store, Bobby’s Place, a windowless storefront with no sign at 6700 Brem Lane near Garlic City RV Park, as an oasis for illegal sales.

A dream came true for Gilroy criminals: A store  popped up in their backyard, seemingly overnight, that would buy all the illegal exploits they could imagine – from heroin and meth to stolen guns and stolen cars.

But in this case, the old adage rung true: If it’s too good to be true, it probably is.

The store that criminals knew as Bobby’s Place turned out to be not a real store at all, but a front for Operation Garlic Press, the multi-agency operation that busted 186 criminals suspected in committing state and federal crimes from March 2010 to October 2011. And behind the façade of Bobby’s shaved head and baggy jeans, is an undercover Gilroy police agent who worked day in and day out for 18 months to gain the trust of criminals all over Santa Clara County.

“I had this persona that I was a wheeler-dealer kind of guy, that I had a lot of connections,” Bobby said, who asked that his real name not be revealed. “I got into their world and built a reputation as one of them.”

Police knew Bobby’s Place had to look as gruff as the guys they dealt with, so in setting up shop, Sgt. Joseph Deras, a lead agent in the operation, said they bought used furniture from Craigslist.

“We wanted it to look like part automotive shop and part man-cave,” Deras said.

According to a photo of the shop, a ratty off-white couch served as a spot for people to unload weapons or sit on while negotiating a sale price for a stolen car. A couple of motorcycles were parked inside to make dealers feel at home. An oversized American flag draped across one wall, only slightly asserting dominance over a large Oakland Raiders flag splayed across the opposite wall.

No man-cave would be complete without a dartboard and video game console; police did this to encourage suspects to hang out after a deal.

Deras said Bobby’s Place became “the place to be” for criminals. Not only did Bobby buy illegal goods at a fair price, he offered customers a beer or a Capri Sun juice while they chatted, and put them at ease by joking around, or high-fiving them.

But what criminals didn’t know is that behind the grungy décor, police hid in a tiny back room  monitoring the criminal’s every move.

And the money they happily ran off with for selling those drugs and stolen weapons came from the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The money for the stolen cars? It came from sources like the California Highway Patrol, according to Deras.

“We would go to the niche organizations for contributions, like ATF, and they all loved it because they were getting something out of it,” said Capt. Kurt Svardal, one of the leaders behind the operation.

“If you’re buying a gun from a gang member, who knows what you can prevent,” Svardal said.

Svardal, Deras and Bobby all spoke to the patience they found necessary to conduct a long-term operation. They said they had to look past the immediate outcome to the end outcome – especially when it came to giving criminals cash for stolen goods.

“It was like, ‘Yeah, we’re giving you money now, but soon we’re going to kick your door down,’ and we just kept focusing on that,” Svardal said.

And eventually, they did. As soon as the investigation wrapped up, Gilroy police engaged in a four-day blitz in October 2011 against the criminals they dealt with at Bobby’s Place. The 18-month, 39-agency investigation was prompted by a rash of auto burglaries and gang violence in Gilroy, and included the arrest of 53 known gang members from five counties. The sting was touted as the biggest undercover effort in Gilroy police history, bringing media from across Northern California to the Garlic Capital as State Attorney General Kamala Harris spoke at City Hall and backed up the work of Chief Denise Turner.

Deras said fewer than five suspects of those arrested during the operation are back on the streets in Gilroy, as most are in custody waiting for their sentencing.

Even when told the truth, many suspects didn’t believe it.

“The common reaction was ‘Holy (expletive)! Those guys were cops?’” Deras said.

Deras said for some, hearing that Bobby was a police officer crushed their world, because in the criminal community, Bobby wasn’t just a crook with lots of connections: He had become a legend.

Partly, Bobby’s reputation snowballed because of the criminals themselves, without Bobby having to say a word. Rumors spread quickly when suspects made up stories about him to vouch for Bobby to their friends, he said.

Also, Bobby wanted to give off the impression that he was a big-time crook. Although not a huge man in stature, Bobby’s arm muscles alone appeared to be big enough to take down a man or two.

“I told them I was in Vegas all the time doing business. Man if they believed everything I said to them, they must have thought I was the man,” Bobby said, laughing.

On just a few occasions, a customer confronted Bobby about being a cop, and he reacted by laughing and rattling off all the people who he works with in the seedy underbelly of South County.

“That must have worked,” Bobby said.

Now, Deras said, criminals are on their toes in Gilroy.

“I think that criminals didn’t think we were sophisticated enough to pull something like this off,” Deras said.

“Now they don’t know what we might be up to next,” Svardal said.

Police say that the operation possibly could have pushed crime out of Gilroy to neighboring towns. But as far as Gilroy crime, police say that Operation Garlic Press has made a “drastic impact” on criminal activity in Gilroy.

“All of this caught them off guard,” Svardal said. “Now their heads are all twisted up.”

Most categories of crime in Gilroy dropped in the six months following the completion of Operation Garlic Press compared with the same time span in the previous year.
From October 2011 through March 2012, police reported 29 robbery incidents as opposed to 40 during those two quarters in the previous year (October to December; January to March). Police saw 45 cases of aggravated assault compared to 57 the year before. Larceny dropped from 644 reports to 487.
Vehicle theft only slightly dropped to 95, from 105 in previous quarters. Reports of burglary grew in the last six months, with 147 reports in the past two quarters compared to 115 from the two corresponding quarters the year before. Police said burglary might have increased when other crimes didn’t because burglars often break into homes to feed a drug habit – and Gilroy police still encounter drug users often. Reports of graffiti came down just slightly, from 34 to 28. Reported rape incidents shrunk to two from five, from quarters in the previous years.
While police say it is too soon to tell completely the effect Operation Garlic Press will have on the community in the long run, Captain Kurt Svardal said he believes that the operation made a drastic impact on crime in Gilroy.
KNOW THE LINGO                       
Robbery: Property taken from a person using force or fear, such as someone getting mugged at the park.                             
Aggravated assault: A violent assault resulting in injury           
Burglary: Entering a structure with an intent to commit a felony, such as a house or a locked car. (If car is unlocked, then it is considered larceny.)
Larceny: Theft.   

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