John Pantoja entered the plea as part of an agreement with the district attorney’s office. According to the terms, Pantoja, 36, will serve 14 years, 8 months in state prison on charges ranging from street terrorism to possession of a firearm by a gang member.
According to Deputy District Attorney Mark Dennings, all four charges were considered to be strike offenses, and if found guilty of another felony, Pantoja could face 25 years to life in prison based on the state’s three-strike law.
Judge Franklin Stephenson accepted the plea as Pantoja, dressed in red county jail-issued clothing, sat at the defense table in the Department 35 courtroom.
Dennings said Pantoja will likely serve 85 to 100 percent of his prison time.
“He’s highly ranked in the Norteños,” Dennings said in a recent telephone interview. “We’re putting away a very bad person for quite a while.”
Following the sentencing, family and friends of Pantoja said outside the courtroom that law enforcement was wrong in perceiving him to be the leader of the Tracy gang.
“He’s not perfect, but he’s not this gang member they made him out to be,” said Aurora Pantoja, who identified herself as the defendant’s mother. “I think what they (police) did was wrong. He’s not this big gang member.”
Defense Attorney Russell Humphrey said during a telephone interview later that afternoon that his client was disappointed with the time offered, but that Pantoja thought it was better than facing a jury and a possible 40-year sentence if convicted.
Humphrey said it can be very difficult to get a fair jury trial when there are allegations of gang activity, weapons and drugs.
Pantoja was arrested in June 2011 during a multi-agency law enforcement sweep targeting local Norteño gang members called Operation Gateway because of the centralization of three interstates in the target area. Department of Justice agents served 28 state arrest warrants and 24 state search warrants in the Tracy area, and the investigation resulted in 30 arrests.
Operation Gateway was a spin-off of Operation Crimson Tide the day before the Tracy sting. Crimson Tide resulted in the arrest of 101 people reportedly linked to the Nuestra Familia gang.
Officials said both investigations were a collaborative effort led by the California Department of Justice Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement and assisted by the Tracy Police Department, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations Special Services Unit and the FBI Safe Streets Task Force.
Overall, the operation involved more than 200 law enforcement officers and 28 locations.