Federal, state and local law enforcement officers arrested 31 people associated with a prison gang and methamphetamine distribution on Monday during a Valleywide roundup code-named “Operation Tiny Dancer.”
Eleven other suspects sought by the multiagency Violent Street Gang Task Force remained at large Monday evening. Authorities are searching for them.
The sweep capped a threeyear investigation, which in part identified how convicted felons in Arizona’s prison system ran a crime ring from behind bars.
Fifteen teams comprised of FBI agents, Arizona Department of Public Safety officers and local police officers fanned out from Mesa to Tolleson starting at about 5:30 a.m. The tactical teams hit more than 40 locations, moving quickly from primary locations to secondary locations in search of suspects, some of whom did not have permanent homes.
Authorities made their first arrest at 6:59 a.m.
They caught many late sleepers in their beds at their houses, apartments and trailer homes. They nabbed one woman at a hospital where she was visiting a child, one man at a Checker Auto Parts store where he was observed shoplifting, and four people flopped at a single Budget Suites hotel unit, officials said.
All of the arrests were made without gunfire and without incident, said John Lewis, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Phoenix bureau.
The suspects were affiliated with a single gang that is based in the prison system, authorities said. Authorities refused to identify the particular gang, because they felt doing so would add to the gang’s notoriety and street credibility.
“The fact of the matter is we’re talking about drug dealers, gun runners, the kind of people who don’t add anything to the quality of life here. The last thing I want to do is give their gang a pat on the back by mentioning their name,” Lewis said. Prison gangs nearly always are based along ethnic lines and all the people booked Monday were white.
The arrests followed more than 50 arrests by the gang task force of suspects associated with a different gang during the past several months, officials said.
The arrests will help deter gang activity in the region, Lewis said.
“Any time you take 90 different people in such a short span of time and take them all off the street for what will be fairly serious offenses, which means they won’t be back on the streets for quite some time, I consider that to be a heck of an impact,” he said.
“This isn’t your Friday night bust with five or six or seven people. This is a large number of people all responsible for adding their piece of criminal activity to a particular part of the city. There is a lot of drug trafficking going on with these individuals,” he said.
The central figure in Monday’s arrests is 38-year-old Phoenix resident Kristine Tietjens, who faces more than 250 charges, including solicitation of an offer to sell or transfer dangerous drugs, conspiracy to commit illegal control of an enterprise, illegal control of an enterprise and participation in a criminal enterprise. Some of the charges carry sentences as long as 15 years. She is married to John Tietjens, who already is in prison.
Tietjens was not a gang member herself, but was involved with meth distribution and other criminal activity, the FBI said. She allowed gang members to use her residence as a safe house to store stolen property, and allowed others to use her vehicle in committing crimes, including robberies and thefts. She also organized drug deals and forwarded messages for incarcerated gang members, the FBI said.
The other suspects arrested in the roundup face between four and 16 charges apiece, said Mike Scerbo, public information officer for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office.
They ranged in age from 21 to 52. Fifteen of the 31 suspects are women. Three sets of people had the same last names, but their family relationships, if any, were not immediately available.
“This investigation has shown that the sale of meth fuels criminal enterprises,” County Attorney Andrew Thomas said in a prepared statement. “Our office will make certain these gang members will be vigorously prosecuted so that their gang runs out of fuel.”
No one who already is in prison is expected to face additional charges as a result of Monday’s busts.
The prison gang’s drug trafficking largely was based in the Valley, though it reached elsewhere in the state as well, Lewis said. The “Tiny Dancer 42” were not believed to have had direct contacts to drug cartel operators in Mexico.
Investigators used undercover officers and long-term surveillance to help identify the criminal network, said Phoenix Police Sgt. Joel Tranter.
Authorities brought the arrested suspects to an enclosed garage near the FBI headquarters to be booked in a mobile command station provided by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. At times, so many handcuffed suspects were present, they were placed in rows of chairs to wait their turns to be fingerprinted, photographed and interviewed. Many suspects obviously were brought in before they had showered or even combed their hair for the day. Many were shoeless.
The arrests came less than a week after a Maricopa County grand jury handed down a sealed indictment naming the 42 suspects for their involvement in criminal gang activity.
Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon credited the cooperation of the region’s various law enforcement agencies combining their efforts.
“Unlike other parts of the country, we’re fortunate. We do have all our law enforcement agencies working together. And not just on this operation, day in and day out, from the federal government level down to the local level,” Gordon said.
“We know that criminals don’t respect geographic boundaries, and law enforcement knows that working together, we’ll get these bad guys,” he said.
The arrests are the result of an effort by several agencies to share their information-gathering efforts in January, Lewis said. The agencies operated from a single command post in the FBI headquarters as the arrests were made.