With her curly brown hair pulled back in a bun, Vianna Roman looks like she might be one of the moms you might meet at a PTA meeting. But Los Angeles prosecutors believe the 37-year-old is the de facto leader of a deadly South Los Angeles street gang called the Harpys and controlled by her father, Danny Roman, from his perch at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison.

Danny Roman was convicted of first-degree murder in 1984—when Vianna was just a 9-year-old girl—but still maintained his grip on the gang, rising through the ranks of the prison system to become a dreaded member of the Mexican Mafia, also known as La Eme, the Spanish word for the letter M. His daughter, prosecutors say, now does his bidding from a large business complex that she owns in South Los Angeles, which houses a dance hall, a meat market, and a number of small apartments.

On Dec. 12, Vianna Roman, whose actor son Bobby Soto Jr. appeared in the 2011 film A Better Life and in the ABC television drama Brothers & Sisters, arrived in federal court with waist, ankle, and wrist shackles and wearing an ill-fitting white prison jumpsuit on her heavyset frame. She pleaded not guilty to racketeering and conspiracy-to-commit-murder charges.  

“Vianna was the person who was running the show and the leadership of the Harpys gang in Danny Roman’s stead,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Benjamin Barron, who is prosecuting the case. “Her father really was someone who was feared and has control over the territory, and her leadership role emanated from that.”

Roman was arrested along with her 40-year-old husband, Aaron Soto, as part of Operation Roman Empire, a federal takedown by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Los Angeles Police Department of 29 members and associates of the Harpys gang. The gang, which has operated in South Los Angeles since the 1960s, is accused of extortion, the sales of drugs and guns, the armed robbery of three University of Southern California students, and the murder of a rival gang member.

Los Angeles Police Department

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Police say they overheard Vianna grousing about certain gang members who weren’t paying enough “taxes” to her father.

Roman’s arrest offers a rare glimpse of the leadership roles some women now play in the Mexican Mafia, the prison gang born in California correctional facilities.

“Women are such a huge part of the program,” said Rene “Boxer” Enriquez, author of the book Mexican Mafia Encyclopedia, which will be released in February for Police and Fire Publishing, and a former mafioso himself. “It is the norm now. These women are calling murders. They have the same psychological disorders that the men do. Without women and foot soldiers there would be no Mexican Mafia. They would be a bunch of guys sitting in their cells.”

The Roman case grew out of a 2010 complaint from a gang member who essentially served as a foot soldier for the family. According to prosecutors, this person became upset over having to pay drug “taxes” to Danny Roman and agreed to wear a wire to surreptitiously tape his conversation with one of the street leaders of the Harpys gang, Manuel Valencia. During the investigation, four additional gang members agreed to snitch and work with the police to nab Roman’s crew.

“They were not content with what was going on,” said Barron. “They were in a situation that because of Roman’s control they had to pay taxes.” (Most gang members believe they will either end up in the morgue or prison. So, the majority of Hispanic gang members agree to pay taxes to the Mexican Mafia to ensure their own protection should they end up in the prison system.)  

According to prosecutors, Danny Roman would pass his orders down through Vianna and his son-in-law, who would visit the older gangster once a month at Pelican Bay State Prison. Those two, in turn, would pass the information along to Valencia, the gang’s shot caller, who would instruct the network of gangs to do the kingpin’s bidding. If there were any serious problems that needed to be dealt with immediately, Vianna would make the call, according to prosecutors.

Besides the wired snitches, the police began secretly wiretapping Vianna Roman’s phone conservations with Valencia and other gang associates. In one conversation, she was caught on tape discussing extorting money from vendors in her territory.

Police also say they overheard Vianna passing along her bank-account number to a gang member so he could deposit drug money into her account; grousing to an associate about certain gang members who weren’t paying enough “taxes” to her father; demanding that a Harpys street gang member who owed her father money repay the debt by handing over his two cars; and discussing beating up a gang member who didn’t pay his “taxes.”

After a December 2011 meeting between Roman, her husband, and Danny Roman at Pelican Bay, the prison warden banned Roman from returning—guards had learned the family had developed a secret code to speak in and were passing information about the Mexican Mafia. In one particular meeting in October of that year, Danny Roman allegedly called for a hit on a gang member by using the word soplón , which is slang for a cooperator or rat, and a reference to “Johnny,” a dead member of the gang. “Investigators understood it as a way to order a hit on someone they believed was a cooperator,” said Barron. “Telling him to go where Johnny is. Basically to be dead like Johnny.”

During another meeting, Roman was overheard talking to gang associates about being banned and that her husband would go visit her father in her stead.

On Dec. 5, members of the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas task force arrested Vianna and her husband as they were walking out of their apartment in South Los Angeles. 

According to Enriquez, women were historically considered outsiders by the macho all-male gangster culture. Until fairly recently, passing mafia secrets to women was punishable by death.

However, by the 1970s, La Eme considered creating a female faction of the crime enterprise that would be called carnales (Spanish slang for sisters). “The idea was to ‘make’ qualified women, but limit their roles to providing housing for paroled members, selling drugs, and setting up prospective victims,” Enriquez writes in Mexican Mafia Encyclopedia.

Since then, Enriquez says that women have been utilized more and given distinct titles and job descriptions. The secretarias, for example, are considered low-level workers and are used to procure burnout phone numbers that could be used to make collect calls between gang members before the phone company gets wind of the scam and closes down the service.

“Female facilitators,” who usually are dating a gang member or Mexican Mafia member, maintain low-level roles as well, says Enriquez. Their main function is to provide mail and relay messages to inmates, place or remove money from an inmate’s account, and when the secretarias are not available, establish a phone line for communication between gang members and assist in limited criminal endeavors.

Señoras, on the other hand, are usually the wives and girlfriends of Mexican Mafia members and play a much more crucial role in the system by relaying sensitive information to street crews and other members.

In his book, Enriquez says the señoras are clannish and generally only associate with fellow mafia wives, but often wield the same power as their incarcerated hubbies. “It becomes the adhesive that binds the criminal enterprise of the incarcerated Mafioso who is a figurehead and provides the authority to the word or ‘street cred’ of a señora,” he writes.

But it was in the ’90s that the role of the lady gangster changed forever. Prison officials eventually got wind of the Mexican Mafia’s criminal activities behind bars and placed high-powered prison gang leaders like Danny Roman in the prison’s Security Housing Units. Because of this, Mexican Mafia members were stopped in their tracks from disseminating outside information to gang associates on the outside and were not allowed visitors except for family members.

“Security Housing Units were hurdles that made wives and girlfriends (las señoras) invaluable to the organization,” writes Enriquez. “Almost every member had a loyal spouse, girlfriend, sister, or mother who could be trusted implicitly and without reservation. Some were very aware of their involvement in Eme activity; some had an idea they were being utilized for something illicit and adopted a don’t ask, don’t tell policy; others were kept in the dark and expected to be loyal.”

Law enforcement didn’t catch on at first and made it easy for the women to succeed because they were generally never considered suspects.

“We never usually looked at girlfriends and wives,” said Los Angeles Police Department gang detective Steve Aguilar. “When we pulled over a car, we were mostly looking for the shaved head. We never searched the female, but now we document them as associates. If we keep seeing them, they will be documented as the girlfriend of the gang member.”

“Most of the women are usually little puppet girls,” Aguilar said. “The ones who have power are the ones who are related to the gangster by blood. Girlfriends come and go. It is the blood family—the sisters, mother, cousins, daughters, and aunts.”

Recently, local and federal law enforcement have wised up, recognized the roles that some of the women have played, and successfully prosecuted a number of cases.

In 2002, Francisco “Puppet” Martinez was a tattooed Mexican Mafia member serving time in federal prison when he and his wife, Janie Garcia, allegedly ran one of the most profitable street gangs in Los Angeles, raking in as much as $85,000 a week. Known as the Black Widow, Garcia allegedly ordered the hit of an 18th Street gang member who showed his disrespect by making a payment to her in 10,000 $1 bills. Garcia pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison.

Five years later, in 2007, police alleged that Maria Delores “Lola” Llantada sent her daughter to visit her father, Jacques “Jocko” Padilla, a reputed Mexican Mafia member serving a life sentence for murder at Corcoran State Prison, to get his permission to whack two men after she learned they were trying to muscle in on her drug business in Azusa and portions of La Puente, Calif.. The alleged murder plot came to light when Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department detectives stumbled upon the deadly plan when they were investigating a separate murder. She is currently serving a sentence in the California Institution for Women.

Then, in 2010, federal authorities indicted Valarie “Bubbles” Delgadillo for arranging to smuggle heroin into the North County Correctional Facility in Los Angeles for Mexican Mafia member Jamie Sanchez. Delgadillo got the job to run Sanchez’s crew after his wife, Susie Schoenberg, was sentenced to state prison for assisting him. “‘Bubbles’ demonstrated her strong socio-political acumen and earned Sanchez’s complete trust,” wrote Enriquez. “Although she was not a señora she was definitely more than a secretary.” Like Garcia, she was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison.

As for Vianna Roman, who is sometimes known as “Old Girl” or “Prima,” her trial is set for Feb. 5.