The undercover FBI probe began in 2015, with agents launching an investigation of the “Brown Brother Hood” street gang based in Vallejo.
By the time the first criminal charges were filed Monday, the probe stretched to Sacramento and involved the purchase of numerous assault rifles, pistols and pounds of methamphetamine.
The feds finally swept in after the increasingly nervous suspects used a high-powered rifle with a scope two weeks ago to blast out a surveillance camera that had been planted on a pole outside a suspect’s home since May, court documents say.
The two men charged in the case made brief appearances in federal court Thursday and were ordered held pending further proceedings.
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Tony Acosta Alvarez faces charges of dealing firearms without a license, conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine and distributing the drug.
His co-defendant, Lionel Ornelas, faces meth charges in the case.
The probe started as an investigation into the “BBH” street gang, which court documents say is tied to the Mexican Mafia and is responsible for slayings, robberies and drug and weapons sales in Solano County.
Over the past nine months, court documents say, a confidential source was able to purchase illegal firearms, ammunition and drugs from Alvarez and his associates, starting with an April 13 deal where the FBI’s source paid $1,000 to Alvarez for a pistol and $1,300 to another man for an M&P15 assault rifle.
The buy went down in the garage of Alvarez’ home on Basalt Drive in Vallejo, court papers say, and within weeks authorities had placed a surveillance camera on a pole near the home.
The buys continued, with the FBI source purchasing a 9 mm pistol for $700 in one deal, and buying another 9 mm and a .357-caliber pistol for a total of $1,200.
By Nov. 30, court papers say, the source had purchased another 18 assault-style rifles, handguns and magazines, as well as more than two pounds of suspected methamphetamine.
The origin of the various weapons is not disclosed on court documents, although they do say one was reported stolen out of Lake County and Alvarez is quoted as discussing “an individual who manufactures automatic assault-style long guns.” Such weapons, known commonly as “ghost guns” because they carry no serial number or other identifying features, have been the focus of a federal crackdown in recent years.
Alvarez moved to a Sacramento apartment on Center Parkway at some point over the summer, court records say, and continued working deals out of Vallejo.
But he apparently was becoming nervous about being detected, court papers say, checking the undersides of vehicles he drove.
“Surveillance units noted that it appeared as if Alvarez was looking for tracking devices,” according to an affidavit filed by Solano County sheriff’s Detective Coy Caulfield.
When he arrived near his old neighborhood in Vallejo on Nov. 30, Alvarez “appeared to be taking counter-surveillance measures while driving,” Caulfield’s affidavit says.
At about the same time, another man was seen standing near the driveway of Alvarez’ former home in Vallejo holding a rifle with a scope.
“The man aimed the rifle directly at the pole camera,” court papers say, then walked close enough to the camera with another man until they disappeared from view.
“Moments later, the pole camera’s lens appeared to be struck by a bullet, which created a small circular hole in the lens and small fractures,” the affidavit says.
Even with that damage, the camera continued to work until a man approached it again with a rifle.
“Then, it appears that the camera was shot multiple times, as the view from the lens became completely distorted,” the affidavit says.
The confidential source had planned to meet up with Alvarez that day to buy four assault rifles and four handguns, court papers say, but Alvarez did not call the source as planned.
After that incident, “the FBI decided to cancel the operation for safety reasons,” and the criminal complaint was filed in federal court in Sacramento.