When hundreds of law enforcement officials converged upon Bakersfield on Tuesday to carry out a daring pre-dawn raid to bust scores of West Side Crips gang members, they began unraveling a sprawling criminal enterprise.
The members of that gang dabbled in illegal gambling, operated a narcotics trafficking business that crossed state lines and engaged in turf wars, according to a federal indictment released this week. Some stopped short of nothing — not robbery, assault or even murder — to expand their footprint and chase that almighty dollar.
In the case of Augustus “AJ” Crawford, a 20-year-old up-and-comer in the gang, it cost him his life.
“Tryin’ to get rich. Trying to get rich. Tryin’ to get rich, man,” one man told Paul Dean, a senior member of the gang, after Crawford’s death during a wiretapped phone call disclosed in federal court documents.
The investigation, which began in February after the death of a 5-year-old who was killed in what appeared to be a gang-related shooting, targeted Crawford, among others. Investigators wiretapped phones, surveilled houses and tailed suspected gangsters and their associates.
The federal indictment document weaves a tale of Crawford’s final sordid months as he planned robberies, shot a drug dealer and took part in ultimately foiled plots to kill hundreds of rival gangsters gathered in a city park. It also paints a picture of how a single Bakersfield gang’s violence, lawlessness and disregard for life can transcend its traditional inner-city boundaries.
‘HE WAS JUST LOST’
Crawford died the same way he lived: running from the law, in a hail of bullets.
Police and FBI officials began tapping his phone and following him starting in February when they identified him as a suspect in the killing of 5-year-old Kason Guyton.
According to a confidential informant’s report to federal investigators, the indictment said, Crawford had details about who killed Guyton and took part in a meeting with other gangsters about how to dispose of the murder weapon.
In his final weeks leading up to his Nov. 4 death, Crawford had been hatching a plan to rob a drug dealer, federal court records show. He described it in wiretapped phone calls to fellow gang member Gary Pierson as a “play,” and that if executed properly, it could pay tens of thousands of dollars in cash and drugs.
“Hell, yeah, we need that right now,” Pierson told Crawford, according to the documents.
They decided they would arrange a deal between Tommie Thomas, a higher-up West Side Crips gangster, and a dealer Crawford knew. Thomas would buy between 10 and 20 pounds of weed worth between $25,000 and $50,000, then Crawford and Pierson would follow that “middleman” dealer to his supplier, whom Crawford described as a “Mexican Paisa,” according to the documents.
“Bounce out on them right when he leaves,” Pierson suggested to Crawford, hauling off with both Thomas’ money and stolen drugs, the indictment said. All of this goes against Thomas’ instruction to leave the dealer alone, according to the indictment, because it would “burn bridges.”
Days later, on what would become Crawford’s final day, another suspected drug dealer named Manuel Cruz called Crawford and tipped him off to the location of a weed dealer and asked if he was trying “to hit this fool,” according to the indictment.
It was about 7:30 p.m. when Cruz gave Crawford the dealer’s location, which he said was at 10th and Q streets, according to an intercepted phone call. Agents saturated the area to prevent the robbery, according to the report, but couldn’t find the dealer or Crawford.
No more than 11 minutes later, the dealer had been shot, according to the indictment.
“Bro, listen, let me tell you, it got sour, I had to down him. Delete him, delete everything,” Crawford told Cruz in a 7:41 p.m. phone call. “We got in a shootout and I killed him.”
“For real?” Cruz asked.
“On God,” Crawford said.
Cruz then asked about the drugs, something investigators said displayed a “total lack of remorse” after Crawford told him he had just committed murder.
So was Crawford able to make off with the weed, Cruz asked?
“Hell, nah, they dropped out knockin',” Crawford said.
Investigators suspected Crawford asked Cruz to “delete everything” as a way to skirt Cruz’s connections to the dealer from law enforcement.
That drug dealer — whom Crawford believed he killed — had actually survived, but with serious injuries. He later told police he was waiting in his car when he was called into the house on 710 R St. along with another man, the indictment said. As he made his way in the front door, the two black men inside the house opened fire, striking him several times.
That house appeared to belong to Paul Dean, an Original Gangster with clout in the gang. He referred to it several times in wiretapped phone calls as “the spot.”
About an hour after the shooting, Crawford was asking other gang members about purchasing a new Glock 27 from them, police suspect because he had already tossed the firearm he used to shoot the drug dealer, or was planning to soon.
But before that, Crawford called Dean, frantic about what he had done.
“I need to pull up and holla at you. It got hella spunky,” Crawford said before referencing what police believe was a previous shooting both knew about. “Remember that hole in the backyard? That kind of spunky.”
They met at an AMPM gas station at Brundage Lane and H Street and talked.
When Dean got to that house Friday night, he found a couch behind the door to keep it shut, blood on the front porch, a pillow in the middle of the street and shell casings scattered across the floor, according to the federal indictment.
It was a messy shooting. Dean wasn’t happy.
“All I seen was the (expletive) shells I’m picking up off the floor,” Dean told Crawford after the shooting. “Blood and (expletive) everywhere … The house shot the (expletive) up.”
He later was recorded on a phone call saying that the botched murder put him at risk.
“At the gas station, I said what AJ, I said what if you all did would have robbed them and got away. You were gonna tell me that you used my spot to rob a (expletive), they come back and kill me,” Dean said. “That hurt my heart, man, though. It hurt. It hurt.”
Before the end of the night, a BPD officer recognized Crawford, who was wanted as a suspect in the shooting, and attempted a traffic stop. He fled. When he eventually bailed out of his car to escape, he was shot and killed by Officer Warren Martin, son of Bakersfield Police Chief Lyle Martin. Officers recovered a gun near his person.
Gang members had predicted Crawford’s demise long before Nov. 4. He had become reckless, quit his job and was trying to make gangbanging a full-time career, according to the indictment.
“AJ gonna be dead before Christmas,” Dean told his son, Erin, a week before Crawford was killed. Erin, another West Side Crip, was in a juvenile facility after officers foiled a plot he took part in to shoot up a park where hundreds of rival gangsters were meeting. Crawford helped organize that shooting, too, according to the documents.
Dean was talking with an unidentified man after Crawford’s death on a wiretapped call: “I could see it in his eyes,” said the man, who told Dean he couldn’t talk much longer because he was in church. “I said AJ, why you quit ... remember I said why you quit your job, man? 'Cause I could just see it on him. He was just like lost.”
Dean said Crawford was “doing too much.”
In the end, a bullet may have brought him down, but it was greed that killed him. He was trying to get rich.
Some of the West Side Crips gangsters were so rich that they began funneling their money through an illegal casino they set up in a Union Avenue strip-mall storefront.
William Thomas, a crack-dealing member of the gang who goes by the nickname “Sprout,” ran the operation, which was open to West Side Crips members and close associates only, according to the federal documents.
It was started as a hangout for the gang, but they also dealt drugs from the location, according to court documents.
He licensed the casino, just as any other business owner would, through the city. It was registered as “Josiah’s Trading Post,” an homage, police suspect, to Thomas’ son, Josiah.
Thomas collected $30,000 from a gangster only identified as “Big Kool,” then started bringing in gaming machines from overseas, a dozen computers to load gambling software on from Moscow, and contracted another gangster to build a false wall in the store to hide the casino.
For the five months the casino operated between May and September, Thomas lived the high life. He drove around in a white Cadillac and took 15 percent of all winnings, according to a confidential informant’s report to federal investigators.
On a good week, the casino would clear $25,000 to $30,000, the informant said.
The operation was running so well that in September, gang members dismantled the casino with plans to move it to Thomas’ house, according to documents. It’s unclear if that ever materialized.
Thomas was named as a federal defendant this week by the California Attorney General’s Office on suspicion of distributing crack cocaine.
TRAFFICKING ACROSS STATES
Although drugs run rampant throughout Bakersfield, much of the West Side Crips' business dealings involved sending packages of narcotics to Minot, N.D., an oil boom town that has seen a decreasing population and economic hardships as the price of oil dipped in 2015.
Investigators overheard Crawford in wiretapped calls talking about sending packages of methamphetamines to an associate only identified as “Pooh” living in Minot.
In exchange, Pooh would wire money to him through Walmart’s MoneyGram service, the federal indictment said. A woman the indictment identifies only as “A.H.” would handle those transfers for Crawford.
Drug traffickers use that MoneyGram service because it allows third parties not directly involved in the drug deals, like A.H., to send and receive payments, the indictment said. The service also doesn’t require a bank account to be tied to the transfer, making it difficult for law enforcement to track the funds.
But that doesn’t always work. One of the girls Crawford was using to pick up wire transfer funds got red-flagged at the store, according to the indictment.
“Whatever you all are doing, don’t use her no more,” a Walmart associate told Bryshanique Allen, one of the girls Crawford used to pick up funds, according to the federal documents.
PUSHING OVER GRANDMA
Gang members would make money other ways, too, including preying on the elderly and defrauding them of their money to fuel their criminal enterprise, according to the indictment.
Larry Thomas, a West Side Crip member, orchestrated a scheme in March 2017 to scam an 83-year-old woman of about $719,000.
She received a phone call from a man claiming to be his grandson. He wove a tale about taking a ride in an Uber that got pulled over by the police, then getting arrested after the cops found drugs in the car. He begged the grandmother not to tell his parents, and then put his “attorney” on the phone, who requested a wire transfer of $41,000 to cover legal fees.
The elderly woman transferred the money to an account belonging to Larry Thomas, according to the federal indictment.
Two days later, the woman received another call from someone claiming to be her grandson and his attorney. He said that someone sued Uber and won a judgment and that she should join the suit to regain the $41,000 in legal fees she had already incurred.
Except this time the grandson was asking for $500,000. She withdrew a cashier’s check and deposited it into an account located in Lima, Peru.
Then the calls kept coming. Someone who said they were involved in the suit wanted a wire transfer of $100,000 as a retainer.
A man named James Mathew, claiming to be a paralegal, rang her next and asked for a $300,000 retainer.
The woman went to the bank to cash out her bonds, where employees convinced her she was getting scammed.
Thomas withdrew more than $219,000 from the account he established for the scam, according to the federal indictment.
He pulled the same scam on an 80-year-old in April and managed to defraud that woman of $35,500.
During a wiretap call, Thomas told an unidentified man about the scheme, which he facilitated through a third-party.
“All I know is if they need a Wells (Fargo) account, a (Bank of America) account, any account they need they just gonna grab. It’s not really about the person. They just look at the accounts, not really the person,” Thomas said.