Pac-Man Puts Bite on L.A. Gang Members

By Kristina Horton - Copley News Service

( Reprint of article which appeared in the South Bay Daily Breeze and the San Diego Bee newspapers.)

LOS ANGELES - One night several years ago, a multiple-murder suspect armed with a machine gun drove slowly away from a South Los Angeles apartment building.

But he stopped abruptly in the middle of the intersection when he spotted the familiar yellow car, Pac-Man. The yellow Plymouth Fury sped forward. And as the wanted Crip gang member stepped from car with an Uzi-style gun in hand, the yellow car rammed him back into his seat. He died in a blaze of police gunfire moments later.

Out of the bullet-riddled yellow car stepped a familiar gang cop, Tony Moreno, also known as Pac-Man.

Moreno never shot the gunman. But that's not what gang members concluded when pictures of the car and the body appeared on the evening news.

For millions of moviegoers across the country, the name Pac-Man calls up images of actor Sean Penn as the hard-hitting and often rash young gang detective in the recent controversial film, "Colors".

But to some Los Angeles Police and Sheriff's deputies in local gang details - and to gang members - the nickname Pac-Man triggers stories about 36 year-old Moreno and his trademark yellow car.

The stories portray an outgoing LAPD detective who knows who's who in the city's hard-core black gangs, who has met with the families of the local homeboys, and who often hears the street version of violence before the killer is caught.

The movie "Colors" - whose writer reportedly spent a night touring gang turf in Moreno's yellow car - focuses attention on this growing breed of police officer, the detectives who learn gang codes and track gang warfare while building their own street reputations.

Fellow detectives say Moreno, one of the several real officers behind the explosive big-screen drama of Dennis Hopper's film, is a natural.

While the movie carries a disclaimer that its characters and situations are fictional, many local gang officers were consulted and observed by the film's creators and cast.

Unlike Penn's Pac-Man character, the stocky energetic Moreno breaks the ice with gang members by talking, joking, and talking some more. Along the rows of cells inside L.A. County Jail's gang module, his hands move quickly in gang sign language, punctuated by his bursts of laughter.

"Hey Moreno, what's up?" yells one gang member in jail garb.

"Who's that?" asks another.

"That's Moreno," the teenager says, and dozens more homeboys from all over the county now know the face.

Moreno grew up with Hispanic gangs in East Los Angeles. When he joined the police force in the middle 1970's, he began tracking black gangs before the violence reached its current levels of about one killing per day.

Several years later in LAPD's Detective Support Division-Gang Unit, he was given a list of unsolved crimes and a bright-yellow car that brought ribbing from his co-workers. He headed for the gang turf ruled by more than a dozen gangs in the city's Newton Street area near downtown and later in South Los Angeles neighborhoods.

One day a local resident told Moreno, "Do you know what they call you? Pac-Man, because of that yellow monster that eats everything up."

Before long, Moreno and his partner, Ted Spicer, began hearing shouts of "Pac-Man!" when they pulled into South Los Angeles neighborhoods. The gang members then began yelling "Pac-Man" at the sight of uniformed patrol officers.

But fellow detectives say Moreno cracked down on gang members only when they crossed him or threatened him or hid from the law.

"He's not a hook'em and book'em type of guy," one detective explained. Some say that's why gang members trust Moreno enough to give him bits of information that can lead to solving more serious crimes.

"When I heard about the "Pac-Man" in "Colors", I just knew that was Tony's car," said Los Angeles Police Sgt. Joe Suarez, Moreno's former supervisor.

"A lot of the gang members that were around the area he worked,you say "Pac-Man" and they knew who it was," Suarez said. "Everybody knew his name ... It was 'Hey Moreno! Hey Moreno!' He was kind of like the ice cream man."

One veteran gang detective from across the county began hearing about Pac-Man in the early 1980's when he noticed the name in gang graffiti.

"It showed up on the walls and people were talking about ...'Pac-Man is sweating me,' " recalled Deputy Jerry Kaono of the Sheriff's gang suppression unit in Carson. "I'd say, 'Who's Pac-Man?' and they'd say 'Moreno.' "

"Gang members often tag nicknames to detectives they know", said Kaono, who is known as "The Flyin Hawaiian". And the names and even detectives' official police radio call numbers now turn up on graffiti-ridden walls.

"To be a successful gang investigator, these guys have got to like you, even if they are out there killing people," said Kaono, a 20-year gang detective who himself was observed for several days by Penn's co-star, Robert Duvall.

"Tony Moreno's jovial, a jokester," Kaono said. "He's one of these guys who can jump out of his car and have you rolling in the street."

Moreno's stream of patter can be deceptive. He explodes into raucous laughter with a row of chortling gang members one minute. The next moment he is silent and watchful, sizing up people as they speak, committing their faces and surroundings to memory.

From an LAPD gang team to Central Jail's gang module to a narcotics bureau trailer in Lennox and now to an organized crime unit, Moreno himself can be as difficult to track as a gang member in hiding.

But the stories of Pac-Man and the yellow car still follow him wherever he goes.

"One time, I was in Southeast Station. Five or six officers were there and a benchful of arrestees ... they started telling war stories," Moreno said. "One said to me, 'Remember what you did with my puppy? Don't you remember? Somebody had disrespected you . You got my puppy and cut its head off.' "

"Which of course is ridiculous," Moreno said of the story. "But gang members sometimes see such tales in a different light."

"So I gave them a non-convincing ' That wasn't me guys'," Moreno said.

"Or the time Moreno spotted a familiar face in a crowd," said Sgt. Ted Spicer, Moreno's former partner. It was the face of a Texas fugitive from a police station flier Moreno had seen more than two years earlier.

Or the time Moreno paid a visit to the grandmother of a teen-ager who had gunned down several partygoers. The gang member later walked down the middle of the street yelling, "I give up!"

But unlike the "Pac-Man" character and his yellow in "Colors", Moreno's reputation has not turned against him.

"People still ask me, 'Where's your yellow car?' " Moreno said.

And last Christmas Eve, Moreno was driving alone on a freeway miles away from Los Angeles when a carload of unfamiliar gang members pulled beside him.

"I felt somebody looking at me," he said. "But then someone leaned out and yelled, 'Hey Moreno, how's it going? Merry Christmas!' "