Supporters know different Latin Kings than one indicted for federal racketeering

Tracy Weyman, also known as Queen Smiley, leaves her house on Lexington Avenue, during an FBI raid that was part of a coordinated effort to detain six Greensboro members of the Latin Kings on federal racketeering charges. (photo by Eric Ginsburg)

by Jordan Green and Eric Ginsburg

Dozens of FBI agents and officers with the Greensboro Police Department and Guilford County Sheriff’s Office swarmed over a house at the corner of Lexington Avenue and Florida Street in Glenwood on Dec. 6 to arrest Jorge Cornell, also known as King Jay, and Charles Moore, members of the Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation, on racketeering charges.

The police had knocked in the back door with a flash-bang grenade. All the occupants of the house were taken out in handcuffs, including Tracy Weyman, a nation member, and her 15-year-old daughter.

The arrests were part of a coordinated raid that resulted in the detentions of six Greensboro Latin Kings. The indictment unsealed by the US Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of North Carolina against 13 individuals, including a number who have been stripped of their status in the nation, alleges that the North Carolina Latin Kings under Cornell’s leadership have conspired to commit murders, assaults, robberies, kidnappings and arson since 2005.

“There’s no way in hell,” said Weyman after being released from custody. “There’s nothing going on.”

In addition to Cornell and Moore, the six Greensboro members arrested include Russell Kilfoil, Luis Alberto Rosa, Samuel Velasquez and Richard Lee Robinson. Wesley Williams, a former member who was stripped of his status after fleeing Greensboro in 2010, was arrested in Las Vegas. Arrest warrants have been issued for six others, including Randolph Kilfoil, who is currently serving a federal sentence for a felony weapons charge.

The indictment seeks the forfeiture of shotguns, revolvers, pistols, an AK-47 assault rifle and three machetes. What they found at the house on Florida and Lexington was cell phones, notebooks, papers, cameras, Cornell’s wallet, a laptop computer, a nation flag, pictures of lions, and various items of clothing and jewelry bearing the nation’s black and gold colors, including a Pittsburgh Steelers cap.

A street organization with roots in Chicago and New York City, the Latin Kings’ history has unfolded as a push-pull tug between criminality and social uplift. In the summer of 2008, the Latin Kings splashed on to the scene in Greensboro only a week after the Justice Department announced the indictment of 26 members of the MS-13 gang in the Western District of North Carolina. During a press conference at the Beloved Community Center, the Latin Kings accused the Greensboro Police Department of harassment, and adamantly insisted the nation was committed to social improvement, starting with an effort to secure a peace agreement among street organizations.

“Most of these groups, somewhere down the line, guess how they started?” Cornell told YES! Weekly at the time. “Protecting neighborhoods from racism, against police brutality. Somewhere down the line they did something wrong or they went down the wrong road, but here’s an opportunity, a beautiful opportunity to get back on the righteous road, so all our people can shine.”

That posture doesn’t comport in the least with the federal government’s indictment, which describes the purpose of the enterprise headed by Cornell as “preserving and protecting the power, territory, operations and prestige of the Latin Kings through the use of intimidation, violence, threats of violence and destruction of property.” Among the most disturbing allegations is that Cornell bragged about killing an MS-13 member, procured machetes to kill a member who had defied his authority, and planned to firebomb the house of another disgruntled member.

“It’s a bit stunning because it has the potential of being really bad for them,” said the Rev. Randall Keeney, an Episcopal priest who is acting as Cornell’s spiritual advisor. “I’m a bit confused, quite frankly with some of the things they listed in the indictment: two armed robberies, arson and a conspiracy to commit murder. I’m a bit confused if those things are true why the Greensboro Police Department didn’t arrest them and prosecute them for those things.”

The indictment alleges that in late July 2010, Cornell stated, “I’m not going to say when or where, but I got me a 13. I got me one. A certain brother did not want to motherf***ing pull the trigger, so I snatched it out of his hand and did what I had to do. You know what I am saying? I can’t stand niggas hesitating.”

Keeney said Cornell has denied making any such statement.

“My question is where did that quote come from?” Keeney said. “That’s a huge accusation and so far the sources of these things are anonymous. Who's the source of many of these accusations? In my dealings with Jorge, he has some pretty straightforward and nonnegotiable rules with the folks that were going to be in the Kings with him, and when people broke those rules he threw them out of the organization. My worry is that someone who he threw out of the organization is engaging in a little bit of retribution and accused him of things he hasn’t done.”

The indictment alleges that in December 2009, Cornell ordered that three members who had rebelled from his control be killed. The indictment states that “Cornell ordered Velasquez to transport from Raleigh to Greensboro two machetes, each stamped with the Latin Kings reference ‘Corona’ on the blade” for the purpose of killing one of the dissidents.

In May 2011, Latin Kings posted up against bailiffs in the hallway outside a Guilford County courtroom after a superior court judge found Cornell guilty of resisting a public officer. The Rev. Nelson Johnson deescalated the confrontation by escorting Cornell to the elevator. Cornell expressed concern that the supervised probation sentence was a setup, and Latin Kings and their supporters retreated to the Beloved Community Center to call Executive Director Anita Earls at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice for legal advice.

After the call, Johnson and Keeney counseled Cornell against taking any action that would be considered provocative by law enforcement. Keeney recommended that Cornell get rid of some machetes at his house to avoid violating his terms of probation.

“I think it’s for self-defense because they don’t have guns,” Keeney said. “[Jorge has] been arrested and is not allowed to have guns.”

Like much of the indictment, the allegations that Cornell bragged about killing a MS-13 member and ordered the killing of rebellious Latin Kings members do not identify the source of information or describe investigative methods, but a press release issued by the US Attorney’s Office states that the investigation was part of a coordinated effort between federal, state and local law enforcement carried out by the Safe Streets Task Force.

“I don’t think anybody has any doubt about their innocence,” said Saralee Gallien, an anarchist who helped establish the Greensboro ALKQN Legal Defense Coalition. “Everyone on the support committee has read the indictment and finds it outrageous…. It is completely vague. A lot of the allegations in the report come from people who were stripped of their status and are no longer members of the nation.”

Cornell, who twice ran unsuccessfully for city council, has maintained a high profile in Greensboro over the past three years. On any given day, he could be found holding campaign meetings at the Green Bean, attending meetings at the Beloved Community Center, marching and demonstrating, selling homemade candy with his daughters at Center City Park to raise money for school supplies, and speaking at candidate forums. If he was secretly directing a coordinated criminal enterprise, then he certainly maintained an elaborate and time-consuming front. And if narcotics trafficking and robbery were among the activities the group pursued for purposes of enriching themselves in an alleged racketeering enterprise, supporters ask, why were members almost constantly impoverished?

Gallien said she hopes people who have dealt with Cornell and other members will boldly bear witness about what kind of people they are.

“We need to express that loudly… and say, ‘I know who King Jay is. I have been with him and his daughters going door to door fighting for a higher minimum wage.' We’ve got to be honest and not afraid of the media. I’m challenging city council members who have had dealings with them. The churches have been supportive. We’ve got to let the state and feds know that we know these men better than they do.”

The federal government’s list of particulars begins in early 2006, alleging that Randolph Kilfoil and at least one other Latin Kings member committed an armed robbery of an individual in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart store in Greensboro.

Kilfoil, who is Cornell’s younger brother, was arrested and charged by the Greensboro Police Department. He pled guilty and received a 39-month sentence in state prison.

Following the arrest, the indictment alleges “Cornell traveled to the Guilford County Jail” and attempted “to intimidate and harass law enforcement officers.”

The incident has been widely documented: Cornell appeared at the magistrate’s office, banged on the window and accused law enforcement officers of assaulting his associates. He was convicted of disorderly conduct in a summary judgment.

The indictment alleges that in April 2007, Luis Rosa — also known as King Speechless and one of the Greensboro six — and Steaphan Acencio-Vasquez — another defendant who is also known as King Leo — along with two others, robbed a dry cleaning business in Greensboro, and one struck the storeowner on the head with a handgun. The indictment also alleges that Acencio-Vasquez committed armed robberies in Raleigh and Durham that year.

In 2008, the indictment alleges that Cornell and Russell Kilfoil, who are also biological brothers, approached the assistant manager of a cell phone store in Greensboro, and that Cornell ordered her to give him money that she was responsible for depositing in the store’s bank account.

Cornell and Kilfoil were each charged with 11 felonies in the matter, which was investigated by the Greensboro Police Department gang unit. All charges were dismissed.

“It certainly seems to me that they charge first and do an investigation later,” Georgia Nixon-Roney, a High Point lawyer who represented Cornell in the matter, said in a 2008 interview. “I can tell you that it’s rare when this happens. I have lots of clients who tell me, ‘Yes, I did this,’ or, ‘No, I didn’t.’ When you start to put the pieces together, it may go to trial or they may decide to plead down the charges. With Jorge’s cases, I barely got involved, and the DA looked at it and said, ‘Based on what the officer turned in, we have to dismiss this.’”

Sgt. Ronald Sizemore, who led the gang unit, said the assistant store manager was Kilfoil’s girlfriend.

“She told the police a couple different stories,” Assistant District Attorney Howard Neumann said in 2008. “One of the stories was that she was doing this for the Latin Kings, and they had threatened to harm her family if she didn't continue to do so. We were able to find where she had literally made thousands of dollars of cash purchases herself at a jewelry store in Greensboro, and at Dillards at Four Seasons. We were able to substantiate that she was spending the cash. All these were public places that were under video surveillance by businesses.”

On Aug. 10, 2008, Cornell was shot and critically injured by an unidentified perpetrator on Aug. 10. A group of pastors held a press conference while Cornell was in the hospital, and the Rev. Johnson conveyed an expression of forgiveness on Cornell's behalf to whoever perpetrated the shooting.

The federal government tells a different story, alleging that after he was shot, Cornell ordered Latin Kings to transport guns from Charlotte to Greensboro to be used in a retaliatory strike against MS-13.

The indictment also includes an allegation that on Aug. 21 Jason Paul Yates, Wesley Williams and others “committed a home invasion in Greensboro, looking for a man who had attacked another Latin Kings member and threatened Williams’ mother. One of the Latin Kings members smashed a beer bottle on the head of the resident of the home.”

The incident can be verified in court records, and was acknowledged by Latin Kings members during a community meeting in 2008. As it happened, the assailants’ information was faulty, and they attacked someone who had nothing to do with the affront. The man who was attacked received a written apology from Cornell. Felony charges against Yates related to the incident were dismissed by the Guilford County District Attorney’s Office in late 2010. No explanation for the decision is provided in case files.

The indictment asserts that “members of the Latin Kings sold controlled substances to financially benefit themselves and the enterprise as a whole.” Substantiation, however remote, is found in only one overt act listed in the indictment, which alleges defendants stole rather than sold drugs:

“On or about December 18, 2008, Yates, Vasquez and two others committed an armed robbery and kidnapping of a drug dealer and his roommates in Morrisville, North Carolina. Yates and Vasquez pointed guns at the victims, threatened to kill them, tied them up with duct tape, and stole from them approximately $450 in United States currency and twelve grams of marijuana.”

Yates became estranged from Cornell’s group in 2009.

In May 2009, the indictment describes a scene involving Randolph Kilfoil, who had completed his state prison sentence for armed robbery, sitting on Williams’ front porch with several other Latin Kings:

“At that time, Randolph Kilfoil carried a loaded semiautomatic firearm for protection from rival gang members. Randolph Kilfoil was later arrested, and attempted to threaten and intimidate certain Greensboro police officers by stating, “It’s a good thing you got me off the streets or it would have been a hard summer for the police. You can’t stop the Latin Kings. We are everywhere. We are going to teach you guys a lesson.”

A Title VI civil rights complaint filed with the Justice Department by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice on the Latin Kings’ behalf states that six officers in the gang unit in plainclothes ran at the house with guns drawn. Accounts differ on whether the police identified themselves, but in any case Kilfoil ran inside. The civil rights complaint states that Officer Roman Watkins jumped up and kicked the door down, and then arrested Kilfoil for weapons possession. Based on his prior felony conviction, Kilfoil was sentenced to seven years in federal prison.

Federal prosecutors described Kilfoil in court documents as “enforcer,” a characterization vigorously disputed by Cornell. The racketeering indictment does not include that characterization of Kilfoil.

In April 2010, the indictment alleges, “Cornell ordered Robinson and Williams to complete a ‘mission’ on behalf of the Latin Kings, and the two obtained an assault rifle, a shotgun and more than 90 rounds of ammunition."

Both were charged with carrying a concealed gun. Robinson appealed a district court conviction. In March 2011, he pleaded guilty and as part of a plea agreement the weapons were destroyed. Williams failed to appear in court and an order was issued for his arrest. His charge was dropped in April 2011.

Most of the allegations covering the period of mid-2009 through 2011 were previously undocumented:

• Cornell allegedly ordered a Latin King member to burn down a home belonging to Williams’ grandmother in October 2009 so Cornell and Williams could collect insurance proceeds;

• Cornell allegedly stole an electronic benefits card valued at $200 in the same month from a Latin Kings member who refused to comply with an order to commit arson;

• Cornell allegedly ordered members to determine where Latin Kings who were not under his command were gathering in Charlotte and “roll up on them” in November 2009;

• Cornell, Russell Kilfoil and others allegedly discussed and planned to firebomb the home of disgruntled member who had disrespected Cornell in May 2010;

• Cornell, whose felony status legally prevents him from owning a firearm, allegedly described efforts to obtain guns on several occasions;

• Moore and Robinson allegedly wrote a series of bad checks to defraud Wachovia Bank of $2,180 in July 2010;

• Russell Kilfoil, Robinson, Moore and Carlos Coleman allegedly assaulted a former Latin Kings member outside the Guilford County Courthouse in October 2010 in retribution for defecting; and

• Cornell allegedly got into a fight with rival Latin Kings members at a Greensboro mall in August 2011.

“I’m not suggesting that Jorge or the guys in the Latin Kings are angels,” Keeney said. “They’re kids. Many of them don’t have post-secondary education. They haven’t had opportunities for employment. Who knows if somebody may do something because they don’t have money.

“I haven’t seen any organized criminal activity that the Latin Kings seek to carry out,” he continued. “Because if they did, they wouldn’t be without money, unable to pay rent, unable to buy food and depending on the charity of others to get by. It’s just not quite fitting as far as the racketeering thing. I think if you take a group like the Latin Kings and define them as a criminal group and then go looking for criminal acts committed by individuals over a 10-year period, they’re going to be able to find that.”

Gallien said that not only did Cornell not authorize or direct criminal activity within the group but that he specifically forbade it.

“Jay doesn’t keep around murderers, drug dealers and rapists,” she said. “The nation was started in 2005 to empower Latinos…. Jay was brought up in a nation [in New York City] that was changing, that was trying to become a nation for community empowerment. Because of the way the group is structured — it’s weird that anarchists are working with the Latin Kings. The Latin Kings are explicitly hierarchical; there’s no way to sugarcoat it.

“Jay is very strict about ‘there can be no illegal activity; we are under such scrutiny by the state we cannot afford that,’” Gallien continued. “Kids have said, ‘I just want to make a living.’ Jay says, ‘It’s not allowed, and that’s that.’”

Gallien said the activities alleged in the indictment are antithetical to her values as an anarchist, but she believes they are trumped up to discredit the Latin Kings in retaliation for beating numerous charges brought by the Greensboro Police Department’s gang unit.

“All those allegations represent a kind of vicious, destructive [activity],” she said. “There’s nothing radical in those allegations that I would support. They’re very personal vendetta stuff. There’s no evidence for it.”

Keeney said he and other pastors are ultimately not concerned with the question of guilt or innocence.

“Ultimately it comes down to our relationship with them being about trying to care for people that are on the fringes of society, to befriend them and try to guide them as best as we can,” Keeney said. “For us, our relationship is not going to be defined by guilt and innocence. It’s built around something else — the call that we have to reach out to those on the fringes and the outside, to do our best to clothe the naked, feed the hungry and visit those in prisons. It’s not supportive of any particular action or inaction, but it’s supportive of them as human beings to seek the best for them. I don’t think anyone is going to back away from them. We care about them, and we’re going to continue to care about them.”

“It’s been a long week,” the priest concluded, “hasn’t it?”

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