EXCLUSIVE: California’s Burbank Police Department had not lost an officer in the line of duty by gunfire in 83 years – until one tragic night.
On Nov. 15, 2003, a suspicious parked SUV without a license plate was stopped by Officer Gregory Campbell at the Ramada Inn parking lot.
Matthew Pavelka, who had been with the department for only 10 months after serving five years in the U.S. Air Force as a military police officer, arrived as backup. The officers suspected possible drug activity.
Two men suddenly got out of their vehicle and opened fire. The shootout led to the execution-style murder of Pavelka, 26, and left Campbell, a 15-year veteran, critically injured. One of the gunmen, 25-year-old Ramon Aranda, was mortally wounded. The other suspect fled on foot.
The police department had not lost one of its own in a shooting since 1920, the Los Angeles Times reported. Hundreds of local, state and federal agents vowed to bring justice to Pavelka’s family.
The special explores how the local Vineland Boys gang, “whose caches of automatic weapons and high-grade methamphetamines suggested they were more violent, more sophisticated and stealthier than previously thought.”
It also investigates how a “staggering criminal enterprise” has roots running all the way to El Chapo Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel.
The documentary features interviews with the many law enforcement officers who worked tirelessly on the case, as well as loved ones, Campbell and ex-Mexican Mafia member “Mundo” disguised in silhouette. He provided insight from personal experience.
“This was without question one of the most impactful cases I have ever worked on,” retired Lt. Adam Bercovici, who served as executive producer of the project, told Fox News.
“In my career, I have managed and supervised cases that ranged from kidnaps for ransom, violent robbery crews, and active homicide suspects, but the manhunt for the killer of Matt Pavelka has always stood out,” Bercovici shared. “It was also a major case that no one ever heard about, but for me and the other law enforcement officers that were part of the case, it was life-changing. In those first two weeks, all of us felt that we were working for Matt and his family. I wanted to tell that story.”
“There are two main messages in this series,” he continued. “The first is to law enforcement. This is what we can do when we put our egos and our differences aside and truly work for a common goal. The second is to the public. This is the good work that we as police officers do, that despite everything that has happened in very recent history, the members of the law enforcement community are capable of great things. That this investigation is representative of the best of the profession.”
Mundo told Fox News that the producers of “American Cartel” wanted him to discuss the mindset of a gang member in California.
“There are a lot of factors of why someone would join a gang,” said Mundo. “For me, I rebelled against my stepdad. There was a lot of dysfunction in the house. I went to the streets and sought the companionship and family that didn’t exist at home. And I found them in gang members. We started off drinking, socializing, getting high together, having cool relationships. And then it just evolved.”
Mundo alleged one wouldn’t target police because simply put, it’s “bad for business.” Still, he isn’t surprised that young or “green” members would break this unspoken rule.
“The reason you don’t target cops is not because we’re in love with police, it’s because you don’t want to generate heat,” he said. “We prided ourselves in isolating our targets and minimizing or eliminating collateral damage… And then at night, when we got home, we slept like babies. You just don’t think about those things. It’s like buying a soda pop… But this isn’t something that happens overnight.”
“But here’s the thing, you should never take some so-called small gang in any town for granted,” he said. “Just because they’re seen as a microcosm of what’s going on out there, it doesn’t make them any less ruthless. There’s no such thing as just another gang. And this can happen in any community. When a gang is established, and they start selling dope, thinking dementedly and acquiring weapons and having the capability and the willingness to use those weapons, all bets are off.”
Nearly two weeks after the shooting, David A. Garcia was captured in Mexico. Police believed that fellow gang members helped the 19-year-old evade the intensive manhunt, squiring him to Mexico, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Pavelka’s father Michael Pavelka, a 29-year veteran of the LAPD, thanked local and Mexican authorities at the time for apprehending Garcia, the Washington Post reported.
Mundo said that once someone is accepted by their “family,” they’ll be willing to do anything for them. And in turn, they’ll be appreciated and accepted in a way that they possibly hadn’t felt before.
“Street gang recruitment is extremely easy,” said Mundo. “If you succumb to that, if you’re sucked in by peer pressure, well then yeah, it’s a matter of performing. It’s a matter of being part of that circle… They’ll hug you, embrace you, shake your hand, all of the above.”
“[When I committed my first homicide], they were hugging me, high-fiving me,” he said. “We were drinking. All I could think about was that I wanted to be alone with my thoughts.
“I didn’t know how to process my thoughts. I didn’t know whether I should feel euphoric and proud of what I did for the neighborhood or if I should feel bad for my victim. I didn’t know how to feel, but the support I received from my peers steered me back to the euphoric part of what I’ve done. To them, I had done something good. I had accomplished something for my extended family. That’s what I called my point of no return.”
Mundo said that a common misconception many have about gangs like the Vineland Boys is that they come from Mexico. He said they’re “as American as apple pie.”
In 2012, Garcia pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and other charges, the Los Angeles Times reported. He was immediately sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
According to the outlet, more than 60 people, including Garcia’s father and brother, were arrested during the massive manhunt. Court documents revealed that Garcia later admitted to detectives that he took out one of his handguns and fired 11 shots through his window. He then retrieved a second handgun. As Pavelka dove for cover, Garcia fired another six shots as the officer laid on the ground.
Mundo left the Mexican Mafia in the mid-1970s after embracing Christianity, the Los Angeles Times reported.
“Everyone has their own reasons and stories,” he said. “Some people leave [gangs] because they don’t want to do time. Some get in trouble and become targets of their own gang because they did something wrong. Some are suckers for a skirt and fall in love with a girl.”
“I was feeling remorse for my victims [behind bars],” he claimed. “I started to think about their families and how they felt… But how do you forgive? I learned about how God forgives. I couldn’t bring anyone back from the dead. But I became a Christian and accepted the Lord as my personal savior. That didn’t make me perfect, but that’s what happened.”
Mundo said as viewers learn about Pavelka’s passing, he hopes they’ll also understand that “no community is exempt on this type of activity.”
“The Vineland Boys were once considered small game in comparison to other gangs,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in Des Moines, Iowa, Missouri, Los Angeles or Chicago… It’s a stark reality of what a small community can produce if it remains unchecked.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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