Gangs in America: Born to be 'Queen of the Harpys'

Facing life in prison, Danny Roman needed someone to maintain his control over the Harpys criminal empire — who would be better than his daughter, Vianna?

To some extent, we are all a product of our parents. Many of the choices we’ve made in our adult lives are a result of our parents — their love, their hate, the time they spent with us, the time they didn’t. 

The choices we saw our fathers and mothers make when we were young affected the choices we made as we aged.

No doubt, Vianna Roman would have time to reflect on the impact of her upbringing. 

Nurture, Nature, or Both
As a 9-year-old girl, did Vianna Roman even comprehend that her father had not left of his own accord? Danny Roman had been sentenced to life in prison without parole for a murder. 

Did she think that her relationship with her father was no different than other children, or had she realized as a child that the quality time she spent with him was in the visitation area of a California State Penal Institution? When she walked among her family members — uncles, aunts, cousins — had she known or even cared what a Harpy was? 

In 2012, as the de facto leader of the Harpy’s gang was lead into a Federal Courtroom in handcuffs and shackles, there could be no doubt to anyone that her upbringing had affected the choices in her adult life.

According to Greek Mythology, when Zeus became angry with King Phineus of Thrace, he chose to punish him by taking away his sight and banishing him to an island where he had all the food he could ever want but was never allowed to eat. 

To ensure that the King could never satisfy his hunger, Zeus sent the Harpys — winged spirits who have been described both as beautiful women with wings and ugly winged bird-women depending on who was telling the tale. 

The Harpys would fly to the island and steal the food out of Phineus’ hands before he could eat it, and then they would destroy whatever food they didn’t take. When Phineus was finally freed from the Harpys, the aptly-named Dogs of Zeus took their reign of terror elsewhere; abducting, torturing, and destroying without mercy. 

Far from ancient Greece in both time and distance, the Rampart Division of Los Angeles is no stranger to the Harpy’s even if they no longer take the form of winged bird-women. 

In the mid-1960s a recently formed and relatively small Hispanic gang chose to adopt the name and the Harpy’s gang was born. They unwillingly shared their community with other small gangs including the Dead Ends and the Wild Bunch — both of whom were originally local football clubs. 

On-the-field rivalries of these and other clubs gave birth to off-the-field fights, stabbings, and shootings. Eventually, the criminal activities of the Dead Ends, Wild Bunch, and other groups caused the public and the police to no longer view them as football clubs but to classify them as street gangs. As the Harpy’s gang grew in size, reputation and propensity for violence, many other gangs in the area did not.

 In an effort to survive, members of the Dead Ends and other small gangs assimilated into the Harpy’s adding to their size and strength. Instead of vanishing from the streets never to be heard from again, the Dead Ends kept their identity and became the Harpy’s Dead End gang, or Dead End Harpy’s. 

The Harpys have found themselves effectively land-locked with little or no room for territorial expansion. With their varrio blocked to the southeast by the campus of the University of Southern California, Rosemead Cemetery to the northwest, and the territories of several other gangs filling in the remainder, the Harpys found they had few opportunities to grow their illegal operations. 

Instead, the Harpys focused their attention and on citizens, business owners and students who lived, worked and studied in and around their neighborhood.

In the late 1990s, Hector Becerra, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, described the Harpys:

“Like the winged mythological monsters they are named for — with a dubious power to spoil whatever they descend upon — the Harpys street gang has soured the lives of residents and merchants in (their) neighborhood...” 

Under the direction of Danny Roman, a member of La Eme who had risen through the ranks of the Harpys and now had authority over their territory, the gang had done just that. 

They terrorized the varrio — extorting local businesses for their often meager profits, attacking those they believed to be rival gang members or civilians, and targeting USC students for street robberies and other crimes of violence. 

Facing the rest of his life in prison, though, Danny Roman needed a representative on the street who would carry out his orders without question... someone who he could trust completely to maintain his control over the Harpys. Who better to hold together his criminal empire than his daughter, Vianna?

The Federal prosecution offered insight into the leadership role that some women had begun to take in the varrios of Los Angeles and the day-to-day operations of La Eme. Once a month, Vianna would visit her father in Pelican Bay where she would receive instructions through coded conversations. 

In one such conversation, Danny Roman was overheard using the word soplon — a slang term for a police cooperator — and invoking the name of a deceased gang member when speaking to Vianna. 

Prosecutors later showed that, in telling his daughter that the soplon should “go where Johnny is,” Danny Roman was ordering the murder of a gang member he believed to be an informant. Vianna would pass this information along to Harpys shot-caller Manuel Valencia, who ensured that Harpys gang members carried out Danny Roman’s orders.

But Vianna wasn’t didn’t simply relay her father’s orders — she became a leader to be feared in her own right. 

In telephone conversations intercepted by authorities, Vianna was heard ordering the extortion of shop keepers and street vendors. 

She was heard complaining about various Harpys members she felt weren’t paying enough tax to her father, ordering the assault of gang members who had failed to pay, and even demanding that a gang member who was late in his payments turn over his car as collateral. 

In the ranks of La Eme — an organization that had once executed members who passed on business information to females, Vianna Roman had seemingly found a place as a trusted underling. Little did she know, however, that the fear she had instilled in the Harpys’ rank and file had caused enough dissent that she was being investigated, monitored, and ultimately indicted.

On December 5, 2012, Vianna “Prima” Roman — along with her husband and several other members of the Harpys Dead End Gang — was arrested as a result of Federal RICO Indictments stemming from an investigation called Operation Roman Empire. 

As the 37- year-old Queen of the Harpys stood before a Federal Judge for the first time — handcuffed and shackled — there could be no doubt in anyone’s mind that little Vianna Roman was truly her father’s daughter.

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