I've written extensively about the Phoenix Police Department's elite Career Criminal Squad and the vital work they do targeting criminal street gangs, such as various neo-Nazi skinhead groups, as well as working murder-for-hire cases.
But other than the squad's creator, former PPD Lieutenant Heston Silbert, now an Assistant Chief with the Mesa Police Department, I've always veered away from mentioning the names of those in the squad. Though public record, their work has been too important to risk jeopardizing it in any fashion.
However, now that two of the CCS will be honored this month and next by the 100 Club and by the Arizona Anti-Defamation League, respectively, their names will be hailed in the press and there's no longer any reason for me to be obscure.
Though other cops and other agencies assisted them, PPD Detectives Ray Egea and John Justus were primarily responsible, along with the assistance of the ADL's Southwest investigator, for bringing down Sand Land's chapter of the Vinlanders Social Club, a vicious white-supremacist gang responsible for a string of murders, aggravated assaults, sexual assaults and kidnappings, in this state and elsewhere.
In particular, Egea and Justus nabbed Vinlanders allegedly responsible for the 2009 drive-by homicide of Kelly Jaeger, a Caucasian gal who was walking with her black boyfriend Jeffery Wellmaker, late one night near Phoenix's Palma Park, when Wellmaker was challenged by a Vinlander and asked, "Hey, nigger, what are you doing with that white woman?"
Later, Vinlanders Travis Ricci and Aaron Levi Schmidt allegedly drove past the couple in a car. With shotgun in hand, Ricci was supposedly gunning for Wellmaker, but got Jaeger instead. Schmidt was the driver of the vehicle, according to the indictment.
That case was cold until the ADL and the CCS stepped in, working it tirelessly, and ultimately revealing a spider's web of neo-Nazi conspiracy that eventually led them to Schmidt and Ricci. Both are facing first-degree murder charges, and the Maricopa County Attorney's Office is seeking the death penalty for Ricci, the alleged triggerman.
At least a dozen Vinlanders or known Vinlander associates were arrested as part of Egea and Justus' year and a-half-long investigation. And there are indictments still to come.
As part of the 100 Club's Annual Jason Schechterle Scholarship Ball on September 24, the pair will be given the Jason Schechterle Outstanding Public Safety Officer Performance Award for their work in bringing down the Vinlanders. The 100 Club, for those who don't know, is an organization dedicated to helping the families of fallen or wounded first-responders.
Then, on October 27, the duo will be feted again, this time at the ADL's annual Torch of Liberty Award Dinner, where they will be presented with the George Weisz-ADL Law Enforcement Award, also for vanquishing the Vinlanders in Sand Land. It's the second time CCS officers have been so honored. The first time was in 2009, when then-Lieutenant Silbert received the plaudit.
Bill Straus, the Arizona ADL's Regional Director, sang the praises of both men and the CCS in general when I spoke with him about why the ADL is awarding Egea and Justus.
"When we look at the upcoming trials of Ricci and Schmidt," he told me, "that crime [the killing of Jaeger] still reverberates in certain segments of the community. That is a really chilling, horrifying crime. [Solving it] is a small piece of the work that these two guys and this squad have done."
The CCS, and Egea and Justus specifically, are examples of what all those who thirst for justice want cops to do: hunt down the bad guys and bring them in for trial.
Indeed, when they go after lowlife Hitler-worshipping skinheads like the Vinlanders, they not only make our communities safer, but, hopefully, help them to be more inclusive, and intolerant of intolerant acts as a result.
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