Day 6: North Carolina Latin Kings on trial

Marcelo Ysrael Perez, who identified himself as a former statewide enforcer for the North Carolina Latin Kings, testified on Monday afternoon that Jorge Cornell, the group’s leader, ordered him to shoot someone in retaliation for an altercation with members of the rival MS-13 gang in Greensboro in April 2008.

Perez has pleaded guilty to discharging a firearm in violation of federal law as part of a criminal racketeering enterprise in connection with the shooting. Perez admitted to shooting a man at Maplewood Apartments in Greensboro, and then fleeing first to Charlotte and later to New York. He was arrested last December shortly before the US government unsealed the racketeering indictment against the Latin Kings.

Perez, whose street name is King Sacrifice, took the witness stand in horn-rimmed glasses, a beard, an orange Guilford County Jail-issued jumpsuit and leg irons.

He said he was about 17 years old when he first encountered a member of the New York Latin Kings while locked up in a county jail on Long Island. He said a member of the Latin Kings later started talking to him about the organization while he was working at a bar with his uncle.

“The nation was about uplifting our people,” Perez testified. “Fighting for our rights. Being a voice for them.”  

But he also said that he carried out violent “missions” on behalf of the New York Latin Kings, including one where he “ended up cracking somebody upside the head with a pipe.” 

Like other Latin King members who have testified to date in the trial, Perez said he went through observation and probation periods before receiving full membership. He said he learned the organization’s structure and “the way we should move, the way we should speak, the way we should conduct ourselves.” 

Perez left the New York Latin Kings at the age of 21 or 22, he testified. He gave a variety of reasons for his break, starting with a hospital stay. 

“Nobody came to see me,” Perez testified. “I felt abandoned.” 

“My tribe turned on my first crown,” he said, referring to the top person in the chapter. “When they turned on him, the love was fading away.” 

To get away from the Latin Kings, Perez said, he moved with his mother and other family members to Charlotte in 2006 or 2007. As a result of his decision to leave, Perez said Latin Kings in New York issued an order of “termination on sight” against him, and a member advised him “not to come back because they were planning to kill me.” 

Perez said his brother encountered some Latin Kings at a gas station in Charlotte, and told him that they wanted to meet him. 

“Why did you go over there if you didn’t want to be involved?” Assistant US Attorney Robert AJ Lang asked. 

“Because my brother was there, and I didn’t want to leave him hanging,” Perez answered. 

He met with two members, Flaco and Hova. He said he exchanged salutes with them by throwing hand signs. 

“They introduced me to a couple more brothers because they were building a tribe,” Perez testified. 

“Flaco told me he was the inca,” he added, using the term for a statewide leader. 

Michael Patrick, the public defender for defendant Jorge Cornell, indicated during cross-examination last week that Hova wore a wire for the FBI as a paid information, and suggested he was an “agent provocateur.” 

Perez testified that he learned that he knew Flaco’s “baby mom,” making it all the more difficult to distance himself from the group. “I started reporting to Flaco and his tribe,” Perez said. “His baby mom knows where I hang out.” 

His experience in New York allowed him to advance quickly in the Charlotte tribe, or chapter, Perez testified. 

“It wasn’t as organized,” he said. “It was getting there. I started organizing it further because I had more experience than anyone else.” 

Eventually, Perez testified, he clashed with Flaco after other members reported to him that the first crown was ordering them to commit robberies to make money for him. 

“A king isn’t a thief in my eyes,” Perez testified. “A brother in a position, you’re not supposed to use them for self-benefit. 

“I advised the brothers that I wanted to take a vote,” he added. “I wanted to step Flaco down.” 

Meanwhile, Perez said, Flaco and Hova had discovered that there was another group claiming to be Latin Kings in Greensboro. Perez recalled that Flaco told the Charlotte group that the Greensboro kings wanted to meet them. Perez said he was wary. 

“I was preparing for war,” he said. 

The initial meeting took place at a gas station in Charlotte, Perez said. Twelve to 16 Greensboro members were there, as was Flaco. Perez carried a .38-caliber pistol in his waistband. Later, they decided to move to an apartment complex parking lot. Perez said he sat in a car next to Hype, who is defendant Samuel Velasquez. Hype talked on a cell phone with someone. 

“When he felt comfortable,” Perez testified, “Jay Cornell stepped out of a vehicle.” 

Cornell “advised me of his position,” Perez said. “He advised me that we had to report to him.” Greensboro, Perez said, was recognized as “the mother tribe.” 

Perez said Cornell summoned, him, Flaco and other Charlotte members to Greensboro for a “trial” to resolve the differences between Perez and Flaco. 

“They took us individually into a room,” Perez recounted. “They interviewed us individually. They wanted to find out the truth, find out who’s at fault…. He wanted to settle the differences so he can start a structure in Charlotte.” 

Ultimately, Perez indicated, Cornell attempted to satisfy both parties. “He gave Flaco first crown of Charlotte,” Perez testified. 

“He told me not to worry about it because he had plans for me. Later, he told me he was going to make me a supreme…. That’s someone who has authorization for the state.” 

Perez said he had been  having some trouble with his family in Charlotte, and accepted an invitation from Cornell to move to Greensboro. He joined Cornell in the apartment where he lived with Jason Paul Yates, another federal racketeering defendant whose case has been severed from the others. 

Perez said Cornell named him third supreme, a position that gave him responsibility for enforcement across the state. He said the Latin Kings feuded with SureƱos, Crips, Folks, some Bloods and, particularly, MS-13. 

Anthony Vasquez, a Latin King known as Menace, testified last week that he hit a man with a baseball bat in early 2008 because the man pulled a gun on him. Perez said Cornell treated Vasquez like “the golden child.” 

“He was being groomed to be the next inca of the state,” Perez testified. “Menace was the first person recruited to the Latin Kings in Greensboro. He was his first pupil, his first student. It was like his son.” 

Perez, Vasquez and some other Latin Kings encountered trouble when they went to Maplewood Apartments. Perez said the purpose of the visit was to check on a “sister” — a female Latin King member, or queen — who wasn’t reporting for meetings and carrying out her other responsibilities. Vasquez had testified that they were there to pick something up. Perez said some female members of MS-13 spotted Vasquez and turned their heads quickly when they recognized him. 

“We got swarmed by two or three vehicles,” Perez recalled. “An individual stepped out of the car with some kind of farm tool, a stick with four picks.… The person who Menace hit with a bat was also there. He proceeded to tell us his problem wasn’t with us. It was with Menace.” 

In a chaotic sequence of events, Perez said one of the MS-13 members started chasing Menace and King Dice, who is defendant Irvin Vasquez, in turn, started chasing the MS-13 member. Perez said he was watching one of the MS-13 members who appeared to have a gun, and was preparing to try to take it from him if he tried to use it. As the confrontation unfolded, Perez said he was upset with himself that he had failed to bring his own gun. 

He said he ordered Sylvia Lugo, known as Queen Blaze, to get in the car and run the MS-13 members down, but she panicked and tried to flee instead. Perez said Dice pulled Blaze out of the car and took the wheel. Blaze and everyone else ran down into some woods and across a creek. Eventually they came out on the road, and piled into the waiting car driven by Dice. 

Vasquez had testified that he received a concussion in the encounter. Perez testified that Vasquez told him he sustained the injury in a fall when he was fleeing the scene. Perez recalled that Vasquez got sick and started throwing up. They took him to Moses Cone hospital. 

“Word got back to Jay,” Perez said. “When something like that happens the first thing you do is call the top person. Brothers started arriving. Jay called other brothers and started grouping up.” 

Lang asked Perez what was discussed at the apartment where Cornell and Yates lived. 

“He wanted retaliation right then and there,” Perez said. “He wanted anybody.” 

Earlier in the day, Patrick had cross-examined Sylvia Lugo and asked her to review a May 22, 2008 statement she gave to a Greensboro police investigator. 

“On that day you told them Sacrifice is the one that said, ‘We’re going over to Maplewood to retaliate,’” Patrick said. “Is that right?” 

“Yes,” Lugo replied. 

“You didn’t indicate to law enforcement [at that time] anything about Mr. Cornell saying, ‘We’re going over to Maplewood to retaliate,’ did you?” Patrick asked. 

“I did tell them,” said Lugo, who testified that her memory of many events was not clear. 

Patrick also challenged the testimony Perez gave under direct examination by the prosecutor. 

“You weren’t all hopping around, urging people to go?” Patrick asked. 

“If we had orders to go, I was going to encourage people to go,” Perez responded. 

Perez testified under direct examination that he started cleaning three guns. 

“Me and Jay Cornell stated debating,” Perez said. “I didn’t agree with his decision. He wanted to go out there with guns blazing. That’s not a smart move. When you’re trying to do a hit you don’t want any witnesses. He wasn’t hearing it. He wanted revenge.” 

Perez testified that he took another member with him to Maplewood Apartments and was relieved to find no one was there. 

When they returned, Perez said he argued with Cornell again. 

“He started screaming at me,” Perez said. “Telling me it was my fault that Menace got hurt.” 

Perez said under Cornell’s orders he got in one car with two other members, Cornell got in another, and they went back to Maplewood Apartments. Perez had a shotgun and the others also had firearms. 

When they reached the apartment complex, Perez said he, Dice and a king named Munchy got out of the car and walked along the length of the apartments. Three people watched them from behind a sliding door, Perez said, adding that they “were mean-mugging us,” or staring. Perez took up a defensive position behind a tree in case one of the people in the apartment started firing. Then the three walked back and passed the individuals in the apartment again. 

“These individuals are not retreating,” Perez recalled. “In my experience if you see someone with a shotgun and you’re not retreating that means you’re ready for a confrontation. When I turned, I saw my mark. I saw his face and I recognized him. He turned and I thought he might be reaching for a weapon, so I shot him with a shotgun. 

“The dude flew,” Perez added. “The impact of the shotgun, it tossed him back.” 

Perez said he recognized his victim from the confrontation earlier that day. But Rojelio Lopez told the jury in testimony on Monday morning that he had been a construction worker at the time and, in fact, was not a member of MS-13 or any other gang. 

Greensboro police Sgt. PM Buser, who responded to the scene, said she cut off Lopez’s shirt and found that his arm and abdomen had been shot multiple times with birdshot. He stanched the bleeding until the ambulance arrived. 

Perez expressed remorse for the shooting. 

“I remember when I got back to Dice’s girl’s house I got down on my knees and prayed,” he told the jury. “I prayed for that man to live. 

“I really felt in my heart that I did the ultimate sin — that I murdered someone,” he added. “I didn’t know he lived. That don’t feel too good on someone’s heart.” 

After the shooting, Perez said the two carloads of Latin Kings headed back to Yates’ apartment, with Cornell’s vehicle in the lead. He said when he tried to enter the apartment, Cornell pushed him and told him: “Get out of here.” 

He said he stashed the gun somewhere and tried to figure out what to do next. Then, Yates pulled up with Munchy and told him to get in. They went to Hooter’s, and Perez excused himself to go to the bathroom. 

“I flushed the shell down the toilet,” he said. “I pissed on my hand to cover up the residue of the gunpowder.” 

Later, he spoke with Cornell. 

“He told me I put a smile on his face,” Perez recalled. “He meant that by me shooting that individual I made him happy.” 

A universal meeting, a gathering of Latin Kings from across the state, was called, Perez testified, adding that the meeting took place in an unspecified cemetery. 

“I was standing in the middle of the 360 [circle],” Perez said. “I was the one preaching. I was talking about the black and gold, and how we had to stand together.” 

Perez said at the universal Cornell issued a “black rose,” an order to maintain silence about the shooting. Perez returned to Charlotte, and later to New York, cutting off communication with Cornell in the process. 

“He told Drama to tell me to go underground,” Perez testified. “He wanted to distance himself from this incident, and play innocent.” 

Less than three months after the Maplewood shooting Cornell, Yates and several other members appeared at a press conference called by the Pulpit Forum, a group of African-American pastors who frequently spoke out on social justice issues. Six days earlier, the US government had announced the indictment of 31 members of MS-13 for racketeering and other crimes in North Carolina. 

Cornell announced at the Beloved Community Center that he was attempting to bring together street groups for a peace agreement. 

“So what I’m asking these leaders to do is, if you got one that’s going to start trouble with the other, don’t let those two get physical,” Cornell said. “And if it does, don’t let it cause a war. Let’s bring it to the attention of those leaders, and let those leaders deal with their own instead of us dealing with their own. And if that means kicking them out, that’s what it means.” 

At the time, Perez was a fugitive and was wanted by the Greensboro Police Department for attempted first-degree murder. 

News & Record Editorial Editor Allen Johnson confronted Cornell about the warrant. 

“It’s a very strong policy I have against selling drugs, and against robbing and stealing,” Cornell said at the press conference. “You can tell them not to do something, but at the end of the day, if an individual wants to do something and they go out and do it, we’ll have to deal with it the way we have to deal with it. If we get rid of him, we get rid of him…. You will no longer be a king.” 

Under direct examination on Monday, Perez told the jury: “I never got stripped…. I still haven’t been stripped, so technically I’m still a king right now.” 

Perez said his motivation for pleading guilty and cooperating with the government was that “by telling the truth, and only by telling the truth, I may be able to receive a time cut.” His testimony was courteous, clear and composed under questioning from both the government and defense attorneys. 

Patrick asked Perez if had been convicted in Nassau County on Long Island for possession of a controlled substance. Perez responded that the case is in the process of being dismissed. He acknowledged that his conviction for racketeering could result in a sentence of life in prison if the government does file a request for leniency in exchange for substantial assistance. 

Helen Parsonage, the public defender for defendant Irvin Vasquez, tried to batter Perez’s credibility by questioning his decision to rejoin the Latin Kings in Charlotte. Perez said in response that he hadn’t told his family that the New York Latin Kings had a “terminate on sight” order on him, and his brother didn’t know any better when he revealed to the Charlotte Latin Kings that Perez was a member. He said his family would have been in danger if he had rebuffed the Latin Kings. 

Then Parsonage asked Perez why he returned to New York. 

“It was the only place I knew how to maneuver… how to survive,” Perez said. 

“Had it occurred to you to go someplace else — like Alaska?” Parsonage asked. 

“It occurred to me to go where I knew I had support,” Perez said. 

“And where you had a ‘terminate on sight’ order,” Parsonage added.

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