Day 3: North Carolina Latin Kings on trial

UPDATE: A third former Latin King was called to testify by the government this afternoon.

Robert Vasquez, AKA King Bear, said he joined the Latin Kings after his brother, Anthony, introduced him to Jorge Cornell, the founder and leader of the North Carolina Latin Kings. Robert Vasquez, like his brother, testified that he committed crimes at Cornell’s orders — part of the government’s case that the group was an ongoing criminal enterprise organized from the top — but his testimony tended to undermine the government’s contention that rivalries with other gangs were part of the Latin Kings’ purpose.

Robert Vasquez testified that he already knew that SureƱos-13’s color was blue because of prior encounters with members in California before he moved with his family to Greensboro.

“Coming from California, they were pretty much everywhere in the neighborhoods where I lived,” he said.

“Who told you that Sur-13 and MS-13 were rivals of the Latin Kings?” prosecutor Leshia M. Lee-Dixon asked.

“I don’t really remember who told me,” Vasquez responded.

Like his brother, Robert Vasquez testified that he sold cocaine at nightclubs as a teenager under Cornell’s supervision in 2005. Both took responsibility for selling the drugs, and said three other kings accompanied them to provide security. On Monday, Anthony Vasquez testified that his brothers, Robert and Daniel, along with Cornell’s younger brother, Randolph Kilfoil, comprised the security detail. On Wednesday, Robert Vasquez testified that Anthony, Randolph Kilfoil and Russell Kilfoil acted as security.

Under cross examination, Anthony Vasquez had said that he got around the age restrictions of Paraiso club at the ages of 13 and 14 by selling powder cocaine outside the establishment. But Robert Vasquez said that as a 15-year-old, he had no such difficulties selling the product in various nightclubs, both on High Point Road, where Paraiso is located, and in downtown Greensboro.

“The owner of the club knew who I was because Jay told him I was going to be there,” Robert Vasquez said, referring to Cornell by his street name. He added that he sold drugs “anywhere in the bar” by approaching patrons and asking them if they liked cocaine, and that he had no concern about the police.

Both Vasquez brothers testified under cross-examination that the original Latin Kings comprised of Cornell, Randolph Kilfoil, themselves and a third brother Daniel Vasquez, and that Russell Kilfoil was not around in the first year, which was 2005.

Russell Kilfoil’s public defender, Brian Aus, asked Robert Vasquez how it was possible that his client was part of the security detail for the drug sales if he wasn’t around.

“He was coming from New York back and forth,” Vasquez answered. “He was only here for a weekend while he was here.”

“This is the first time you ever testified to this, isn’t it?” Aus asked.

“Yeah,” Vasquez responded, “because it’s just coming to me.”

Vasquez testified that he served jail time for assaults and robberies. By his own account, he was in prison more than he was out during the time he was a member of the Latin Kings. Following his release in 2008, he said he tried to leave the Latin Kings because Cornell was always in trouble and Vasquez also found himself in trouble when he hung around Cornell.

Defense attorneys challenged Vasquez’s assertion that he wanted to distance himself from the Latin Kings and the gang life, likely to build an argument that instead he wanted to break away from Cornell’s organization and that the North Carolina Latin Kings were not a single enterprise.

Under cross-examination, Vasquez testified that he quit participating in gang activities when he broke away from Cornell’s Latin Kings.

Then Michael Patrick, Cornell’s public defender, produced a photograph taken in March 2010 for Vasquez’s review. The witness identified himself in the photograph and said the others were Latin Kings from Asheboro and Raleigh.

“The testimony you gave is wrong, isn’t it?” Patrick asked.

Vasquez responded, “We weren’t doing nothing gang related. That was just posing for a picture.”

“Is that gang-related activity to pose for a picture in Latin Kings colors and throw gang signs?” Patrick asked.

“Yeah, it is,” Vasquez responded.

Aus confronted Robert Vasquez with the fact that he was wearing a Pittsburgh Pirates ball cap with the Latin Kings’ colors gold and black, and a pair of tennis shoes with gold trim.

Vasquez said that his uncle had given him the cap “a long time ago.” He added, “I didn’t go looking for them. They were in my area, and we just ran into each other.”

Defendant Samuel Velazquez’s public defender, Mark Edwards, noted that the photograph showed Robert Vasquez and his brother, Anthony, in the middle of the group with the others throwing signs in their direction.

“In this photograph you and your brother are kind of the center of attention, aren’t you?” he asked.

Vasquez’s answer was inaudible.

Two months after he left the Cornell’s Latin Kings group in 2009 Vasquez testified that an unidentified car stopped in front of his house on Keeler Street at night and a passenger got out and started firing into the house. Vasquez’s girlfriend and her children were sleeping in the bedroom at the time. The government introduced photos into evidence showing bullet holes on the outside of the house and inside the room. Vasquez said after watching the shooter from the window he went to check on his girlfriend and the children, and found “blood everywhere.” His girlfriend had been shot in the buttocks.

Vasquez told the jury that the car stopped in front of the house looked like one driven by the girlfriend of Peaceful, the street name for Russell Kilfoil.

“I couldn’t see the shooter’s face,” Vasquez testified. “He was wearing a fitted hat. I recognized him from a distance. I really didn’t have to see him to know who it was.”

Under cross-examination, Vasquez testified that he was 90 percent certain that the shooter was Russell Kilfoil.

A bullet in a second shooting at the Keeler Street house after Vasquez’s break with Cornell punctured the headboard in the room where his uncle had been sleeping. Afterwards Vasquez found “MS-13,” the name of another gang, spray-painted on the outside of the house.

Vasquez denied that Cornell’s frequent appearance in the news in 2008 was part of the reason he decided to leave. Patrick confronted him with a transcript of his grand jury testimony last year in which Vasquez states that Cornell “was getting in the news too much” and making “reports” on the police that caused unwelcome law enforcement attention.

Vasquez testified today that he did not recall making that statement in his earlier testimony, but he probably did say it.

In another contradiction, Vasquez testified under questioning by the government prosecutor that had he not fought with someone who gave their address to MS-13 members, he would have faced consequences from Latin Kings leadership. Then Vasquez testified that he didn’t do anything in the assault. He also testified that he received one order to undergo a “physical” for violation of rules, but never received the customary 1-2 minute beating that is the customary punishment for the offense.

“You didn’t take Jay seriously, did you?” Aus asked.

“I did at first,” Vasquez said, “but not after I got out of jail.” 

ORIGINAL POST: A federal jury heard testimony this morning from a Laotian couple who operate a laundry service, a white insurance agency owner, a Latina money business transfer employee and a shopper who were witnesses to a string of armed robberies in Greensboro and High Point that the government alleges were part of a criminal racketeering conspiracy by the Latin Kings of North Carolina.

Luis Alberto Rosa, a member of the Latin Kings, told members of the jury yesterday that he participated in the robberies of Cornerstone Insurance (also identified as GMAC) and Musica Latina with a man named “Yayo,” who is defendant Ernesto Wilson.

Richard Needham, a Summerfield resident who owns Cornerstone Insurance, testified that Alana Cornell, who is Latin Kings leader Jorge Cornell’s ex-wife, worked as a customer service representative for his company for about a year and a half. Needham testified that Alana Cornell was a good employee who eventually left to start her own business. Jorge Cornell would come by Cornerstone from time to time to pick up the couple’s daughters, and even came to Needham’s house one time for a cookout. When by Assistant US Attorney Robert AJ Lang if Jorge Cornell was always respectful, Needham responded, “Very much so.”  

Rosa had testified on Tuesday that Jorge Cornell told him and others who carried out the robbery that he knew someone who used to work there and accurately described to them where they would find a bag of money. 

The government also put Mixay and Bouakham Keophakhoun, a Laotian couple who operates Express Laundry in the DP Business Center on Farmington Drive in Greensboro on the stand. The couple testified that two armed men robbed them as they were closing the business on a rainy night in April 2007. One of the men pulled a gun on Mixay Keophakhoun and eventually wrested away a bag containing the business owner’s .45 mm Glock handgun. Meanwhile, Bouakham Keophakhoun was sitting in the couple’s white Toyota pickup truck with the bag of money containing the days business proceeds when one of the men broke out the window of the vehicle with his gun and hit her in the head. 

ADDENDUM: On Monday, Anthony Vasquez, a former Latin King who has become a cooperating witness, testified that Wilson, Steaphan Acencio-Vasquez and Allen Jordan had robbed Express Laundry, and split up the proceeds with him and Cornell at Vasquez's house on Keeler Street.

RESUME ORIGINAL POST: Shadia Mercado, an employee at Musica Latina in High Point, testified that two armed men came in the store and demanded money. One of the men pointed a gun at her as he demanded money. Then she said she was ordered into the bathroom with an employee from Pizza Vino who was visiting from the business next door. 

“They had grabbed me by the hair and were pulling me,” she said. “They were dragging me.” 

Tina Chavis, a High Point woman, testified that she was buying tortillas with her 14-year-old son at El Tarahumara on East Kivett Drive in High Point when two men wearing black masks, including a black male, entered the store. She said one of the men told store owner Jose Espinoza: “Give me the money, or I’ll kill you.” 

The black male pointed the gun at her son, Chavis said. 

“It was scary,” she said. “I thought I was going to die. I was just there for some tortillas.”

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