Day 7: North Carolina Latin Kings on trial

The better part of the testimony and evidence put on the by government on Tuesday dealt with alleged efforts by Latin Kings in Greensboro to procure weapons after Jorge Cornell, the Greensboro-based leader of the state organization, was shot by an unknown assailant in an apartment complex in August 2008.

Randy Bello, a Charlotte Latin King with the street name of Drama, testified that King Peaceful, who is Russell Kilfoil and Cornell’s biological brother, called him and told him “to bring whatever guns I could” after the shooting.

Cornell and Kilfoil are both defendants in the criminal racketeering trial, along with four others. Six defendants have pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with the government. Another defendant, Jason Paul Yates, was severed from the case after his lawyer told the court she was unprepared to go to trial, and his case will be tried separately.

Bello said Peaceful arranged for him to pick up a .45-caliber handgun from a Bloods member in Charlotte. Bello also testified that he had a .32-caliber handgun that he offered to the Greensboro Latin Kings. But he appeared to hold reservations about sharing it with the Greensboro Latin Kings, telling another Charlotte Latin King, Hova, at the time: “This shit already got a head on it.”  

As he explained to the jury on Tuesday, “That means it’s dirty. It’s a stolen gun.” 

What Bello didn’t know at the time is that Hova, who is Jose Lugo, was recording their conversation as a confidential informant wearing a wire for the government. 

The government contends in its indictment that in early August 2008 Cornell and Kilfoil ordered Latin Kings members to bring firearms from Charlotte to Greensboro to be used in a retaliatory strike against MS-13 members who had shot Cornell. 

On Tuesday morning the government played audio recordings between Hova and Peaceful that purportedly showed that Peaceful ordered the Charlotte Latin Kings to bring firearms to Greensboro. Courtroom spectators had difficulty understanding the recordings. The government provided transcripts to members of the jury to help them make sense of them. 

Bello testified that he had some difficulty making the trip to Greensboro because he didn’t have transportation. He couldn’t scrounge up the money for a Greyhound bus ticket. But Hova had access to a rental car, and they stashed the two firearms in the trunk and hit the road. 

The car was stopped in Greensboro on Interstate 85 near Groometown Road, and a Guilford County Sheriff’s deputy confiscated the weapons. Detective Herbert Sampson testified on Tuesday that he made the stop at the request of Detective John Lowes, and knew that the weapons would be in the trunk. 

“You knew that the driver of that vehicle was working with Detective Lowes and the government?” Assistant US Attorney Robert AJ Lang asked. 

“Yes, sir,” Sampson testified. 

Under cross-examination, the deputy testified that he charged Lugo for the firearms to help him maintain his cover as a confidential informer. 

Cornell was shot by an unknown assailant outside the Cedar West apartments in Greensboro where Yates lived at the time. One bullet struck his leg and another tore through his shoulder and exited his chest. Cornell later told YES! Weekly that a doctor told him he might die. 

Shortly after the shooting Cornell publicly expressed forgiveness to whomever might have shot him through the Rev. Nelson Johnson at a press conference, reiterating his commitment to bringing about a peace agreement among street organizations. 

On Monday, Cornell’s public defender, Michael Patrick, submitted an intriguing document with the court that includes a narrative describing a November 2010 encounter between a Greensboro police officer and a Latin King member. The document raises an intriguing possibility about the motive behind Cornell’s shooting and cuts against the narrative promoted by the government that the perpetrator was a member of MS-13. 

Included in an e-mail sent by Greensboro police Detective Ernest Cuthbertson, the narrative by an Officer Trimnal describes encountering 31-year-old Gorge Cardenas, who was intoxicated and stranded in a car on the entrance ramp from the Urban Loop to Bryan Boulevard in Greensboro. Trimnal reported that Cardenas confirmed that he was a “26 Trouble Latin King, including a West 28th Street, Chicago address in the narrative. Cardenas showed Trimnal a photo ID with a Winston-Salem address. 

Trimnal wrote that Cardenas said that he had been sent to “get close to” and “gather information” on Cornell. The Latin Kings member said, according to Trimnal’s account, that “Jorge’s days were numbered, and that he was about to be ‘taken out.’ 

“Mr. Cardenas stated that if we (GPD) would stop ‘fucking w/ him… we wouldn’t have to worry about Jorge anymore…,’” the narrative continues. “Mr. Cardenas stated repeatedly that he was sent here to ‘do a job’ and that this ‘shit comes from high up/within.’” 

Trimnal said he had nothing to charge Cardenas with, so he and another officer assisted him by pushing his vehicle “completely out of the roadway.” 

A former Greensboro Latin King, Allan Jordan, has confirmed in his testimony that there were “two different schools of thought” in the Latin Kings, one from New York and one from Chicago, where the organization was founded. Cornell came to North Carolina from New York, while Yates moved here from Chicago. Jordan testified under cross-examination that initiation into the organization under the Chicago process required candidates to either kill someone or undergo a beating. In contrast, all Latin Kings who have testified for the government have stated that they became members of the North Carolina Latin Kings without having to either commit acts of violence or submit to beatings. 

Bello testified today that he was called to a statewide Latin Kings meeting in 2008 in which Yates was a candidate for inca, or statewide leader. Cornell would have been deposed had the vote gone against him. Defense attorneys have sought, with mixed success, to get former members testifying for the government to acknowledge that they sided with Yates when he left Cornell’s organization. 

“As evidence in this case last week has demonstrated, various dissident groups of persons fell out with Mr. Cornell and may have been motivated to engage in hostile actions against him,” Patrick wrote in a motion filed on Monday. “The government’s indictment contends that despite these splits, the Latin Kings remained a single enterprise as charged in the indictment, so this evidence of a split is relevant as to the issue of the enterprise charged as well as motivation of possible witnesses in this case. It is also relevant to disprove the contention by some of the government witnesses who split with Mr. Cornell that Mr. Cornell directed violence toward them after the split despite their desire to peacefully leave the Latin Kings.” 

Patrick also indicated in the motion that Greensboro police Officer P. Caffey, one of the government’s prospective witnesses, had told prosecutor Robert AJ Lang that one of the prospective defense witnesses had told her that he shot Cornell. (Cardenas’ name was not on the prospective defense witness list.) During jury selection Patrick said he had requested a copy of a report of Caffey’s interview with the prospective defense witness considering that it potentially affected the credibility of Caffey and the unnamed prospective witness, but that the government has not provided the document. Since that time, the government has submitted an amended witness list with Caffey’s name removed. 

Patrick is requesting that the government provide investigative files related to the threats against Cornell, including any that might tend to support the defendant’s innocence under the so-called Brady rule. 

The government also called witnesses, including police officers and a neighbor, who provided testimony about an August home invasion and assault after Cornell was shot. Greensboro police Detective Edward Bruscino testified that, responding to a 911 emergency call, he found Louis Young at his home on Kindley Street with a towel over his head and blood coming from his head. 

“He told me he was sleeping, and he awoke with a bunch of young boys in his house,” Bruscino testified. “One of the young boys asked him where he was. He said he did not know what he was talking about. One of the young boys hit him with a bottle, and asked him again where he was. He again said he didn’t know what he was talking about.” 

The jury had the opportunity to look at a photograph of the bloody gash on Young’s forehead. 

Greensboro police Officer Dean D’Andrea executed a traffic stop based on a description of the vehicle the attackers were driving on the night of the assault. Bruscino testified that he brought Young to the scene and asked him if he recognized any of the young men. The officer said young identified Anthony Vasquez as the person who struck him with the bottle, and also recognized Yates. 

Latin Kings members said in a community meeting shortly after the assault that on the same day an unidentified man had invaded the home of Latin Kings friend Cara Williams and attacked Hova. They realized belatedly that they had targeted they had retaliated against the wrong person. Young received a written apology from Cornell, a detail that has not to date been shared with the jury. 

Vasquez testified that he separated from Cornell’s group in late 2008 or early 2009. Around that time, he said, he started receiving payments from the government, which eventually totaled about $2,500, as a reward for his cooperation. He also testified that he received an “immunity letter” from the government in exchange for his testimony.

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