Of Pot, and Shots and the Police Department
Speculations on a Shooting
On January 18th, at 3:50 AM, many in the northern part of San Leandro awoke to the sound of shots. Perhaps because it was a particularly cold and windless night, the sounds traveled fast. They were heard by Marina & San Leandro Boulevard, around City Hall, in Estudillo Estates as well as Assumption Parish, and even, albeit faintly, in the Broadmoor.
Thirty to forty people rushed to report the shots to the Police and 911. Many others tried but weren’t able to get through. The Police responded, albeit quietly. They concentrated in searching the area between Castro and Thornton streets, between East 14th and San Leandro Boulevard. They were looking for injuries and evidence. They didn’t find anything.
What the Police did was standard procedure. When the shots have been heard over such a big area, it’s impossible for the police to localize them by sound alone. The area they chose to search through is the one from where they got the most 911 calls. It makes sense, you’d think that people who heard them loudest would call first.
There was one miscalculation in that equation, however. It was 3:50 in the morning. People were at home. All the businesses that line East 14th were closed. If the shots had come from there, there would be no-one located on the street itself to report them. And indeed, that’s where I think the shots were fired. Not at East 14th and Castro or Thornton, though, but East 14th between Estabrook and Harlan Streets – right by my house.
I was actually awake at 3-something AM when the first shots were fired. I hadn’t been able to go back to sleep after taking my puppy outside probably an hour earlier. I had heard shots from time to time before, but never this loud, never this close (well, except at the gun range). And never before had I seen their muzzle flash.
The muzzle flash. It was so bright, that I could see it while lying down in bed, by my north-facing bedroom window. So bright, that my next door neighbors could see it through their closed north-facing windows. I was so sure they were coming from so close that I didn’t look through the window, I stayed low, just in case a bullet came my way. Apparently that’s a normal reaction to shots.
The next day, many people commented about hearing the shots on my Facebook page, the San Leandro Patch and neighborhood mailing lists. But I came across only one person who had actually seen the muzzle flash. Someone who lived near the corner of East 14th and Elsie, three blocks or so from my house.
With this information I contacted a ballistic expert – a professor of forensics at a major university, who has written extensively on the subject. I found out that you can tell how far away a shot was fired by the interval between when you see the light from the muzzle flash and you hear the shot. For every 100 feet, there is a delay of 1/10th of a second between the two. Humans will notice this delay once it reaches 1/2 a second, or 500 feet from the source. That means, that if you hear the sound and see the light concurrently, that is to say, don’t notice a delay, the shots were likely fired less than 500 feet from where you are. We didn’t notice any delay.
So I knew two things, that the shots had been fired within 500 feet of the northern side of my house, and that their flash could also be seen from Elsie and East 14th. I opened up Google Earth. Their satellite photos of my neighborhood are surprisingly sharp. They show not only houses, but also other buildings, cars and trees (though many of these are currently leafless). These photos (and a ruler) made it easy to calculate where the shots were most likely to have been fired from. Invoking Occam’s Razor, I made the assumption that it’s most likely that the flashes that hit us had not been blocked by any buildings. Even assuming that the shooter moved a bit between shots, that left a very limited area where the shooter could have been: the area around the parking lot behind the Pho An-Ha restaurant or across the street, at the sidewalk in front of the California Police Activities League.
Of course, I may be wrong. I may be missing something important in this analysis, so I wrote to the Chief of Police. I asked her to investigate and offered her the information I had gathered. I figured the Police could at least talk to the people who saw the muzzle flashes and see where that led them. She wasn’t interested. When she finally issued a press release the next day, she asked the public for information on any property damages. She specifically didn’t ask for information on the actual shooting or the shooter.
Now this, my ballistic expert tells me, is also standard procedure. At this point they won’t be able to find the shooter, nobody is injured and there hasn’t been any property damage, so why should they care? Well, perhaps because those shots in the night may be connected to something bigger.
The day after the night-time shooting, the Police reported that a an unmarked police car had been following a suspect when he did a u-turn with his car and opened fire on the policeman. The suspect was arrested the following day. He was identified as Matthew Nguyen. According to the police, the shooting took place while the undercover police officer was investigating a narcotics operation. Coincidentally (or not), a week and a half earlier the Police had announced they had busted a marijuana growth operation in a private house in San Leandro. Five people, all with Vietnamese names, were arrested and the Police seized a number of guns, including two assault rifles, in addition to the marijuana and MDMA.
I had been originally skeptical about the wisdom of spending police resources to bust marijuana growing operations. After all, the more pot we grow in California, the less we’ll be importing from Mexico, and the less money we’ll be putting into the hands of the ultra-violent Mexican drug cartels. So I asked the police about this at the last Coffee with the Cops. What they told me was quite interesting. Apparently, while some home-based marijuana growth operations are run by people who might have lost their jobs and are trying to make ends meet, others are just part of the operations of organized criminal organizations which don’t limit themselves to just growing pot. The problems associated with them are not just drug dealing issues, but also the danger to the neighbors from the activities in the house. The houses are usually not wired well enough for the amount of electricity growing that many marijuana plants inside requires, electricity is often stolen from electric lines outside, and thus the risk of fire can be quite high. The houses can often develop dangerous amounts of mold that can interfere with the health of those around them. In other words, they are a public nuisance.
I didn’t think it was a coincidence that the growth house operation was ran by Vietnamese and that the man who had shot the cops was also Vietnamese. And I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that the shots fired near my house could very likely have come from the parking lot of the Vietnamese restaurant around the corner. I am not, of course, suggesting that the restaurant itself has anything to do with any drug operation, but immigrants to this country tend to patronize restaurants serving foods from their home lands, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to believe that Pho An-Ha (which is said to serve very good pho) has drug dealers among its clientele. Drug deals often take place in parking lots, and the parking lot of a restaurant known by both parties may be a good place to meet, specially at 3:30 in the morning, where no one is around.
I wanted to make sure I wasn’t falling on the easy trap of “profiling”, or assuming that a criminal organization with Vietnamese members will mostly include other Vietnamese, so I decided to do some online research. What I found is that Vietnamese and Chinese DTOs (drug trafficking organizations) are the main producers and distributors of house-grown high-potency marijuana in at least a hundred American cities (including Oakland), as well as of MDMA (ecstasy). These DTOs are highly organized and “are very aggressive in surveillance and countersurveillance of law enforcement officers in the areas where they operate”*. They started in Canada and exported their products to the US, but once the border was tightened in 911 they decided to move operations here. They collaborate with local gangs to move their product and they may be involved in even more unsavory operations. Vietnamese DTOs operating in England, for example, frequently import child-slaves to tend to the plants.
Of course, all the above is speculation. I may be wrong. But if I’m not,then what? Well, I’m hoping that the Police will take notice that some pretty ugly drug dealing may be happening around this area and they’ll patrol enough so that the drug dealers will prefer to go elsewhere (hopefully to an unpopulated area), or at least, not bring their guns with them.
* Drug Trafficking Organizations, by the National Drug Intelligence Center