The US government put its third cooperating defendant on the witness stand in the racketeering trial of about a dozen North Carolina Latin Kings in federal court in Winston-Salem on Wednesday.
Richard Robinson, a Latin King known as Focus who was active from 2009 up to the time of the indictment last December, drew a picture through his testimony of an organization consumed with schemes to punish ex-members and bring renegade members under control that occasionally clashed with other gangs. He described a Greensboro chapter that rarely exceeded more than five people in which chronic money woes sometimes forced members into illegal activities. Robinson told the jury he became disillusioned that the organization that initially impressed him under the leadership of Jorge Cornell as a righteous force for community improvement eventually revealed itself to be no different than any other street organization.
“I heard about Cornell running for city council and bringing about a peace agreement; I thought that was righteous,” the 23-year-old Robinson testified. “But then I saw the things we were doing, and I thought, ‘We’re no better than anybody else.’”
Like two other cooperating defendants, Luis Alberto Rosa and Marcelo Ysrael Perez, Robinson took the witness stand in an orange Guilford County Jail jumpsuit and leg irons.
Robinson said he grew up moving from state to state, spending parts of his childhood in North Carolina, Maryland, Kentucky and Texas, because his stepfather was in the military. He first encountered the Latin Kings in Baltimore, Md. but turned down a friend’s invitation to join because he “didn’t want to be any part of” their activities, namely “robbing women and beating up children.”
But as a JobCorps volunteer with an assignment in Henderson, NC, he began to investigate the North Carolina Latin Kings. He testified that he “saw the righteous movement that” Cornell was leading, and e-mailed the leader to see if he could join. For whatever reason, he did not hear back from Cornell, but began wearing black and yellow – similar to the Latin Kings’ traditional black and gold colors.
He happened to bump into Samuel Velasquez, also known as King Hype, on the Amtrak train in Raleigh while he was traveling between his mother’s home in Winston-Salem and his JobCorps assignment in Henderson. Velasquez is one of seven remaining defendants who have not struck plea deals with the government.
Robinson said Velasquez asked him if he was a Latin King, and Robinson responded that he was “rep-ing.”
“You don’t rep,” Robinson recalled Velasquez saying. “You either are one or you’re not.”
Robinson told Velasquez he had e-mailed Cornell, but had received no response. So Velasquez called Cornell, who confirmed Robinson’s story. Then Velasquez told Robinson he should come to Greensboro for NC A&T University homecoming.
He met Velasquez, Rosa and Wesley Williams at the McDonalds on Randleman Road.
“They asked me some questions,” Robinson said. “They asked me: ‘If there were two burning buildings and my mother was in one and a Latin King was in the other, which one would I go for first?’ I said, ‘My mother.’ I guess that was the right answer.”
Robinson said he got his street name at that first meeting at McDonalds through a conversation with Velasquez.
“When I put my mind to something I stay with it,” Robinson testified. “I went to school for culinary arts and I wanted to have my own restaurant. He said I had a goal, and I needed to stay focused to achieve it.”
The next time he came to Greensboro was to attend a speech by Cornell at Bennett College. Again, he was summoned by Velasquez.
“He was talking about some anniversary of the KKK, police brutality and racism that’s going on today,” Robinson recalled in his testimony under cross-examination.
That weekend he stayed at Cornell’s house on West Terrell Street, and Cornell’s vehicle was repossessed. Robinson testified that Cornell ordered him to stand in front of the vehicle to prevent the tow truck from executing the repossession, but that he was unwilling to do so. He testified that Williams threw a rock at the tow truck but it sped off. The three went to the place where the vehicle was supposed to be secured to try to retrieve a backpack belonging to one of Cornell’s daughters, but were unable to locate it.
Robinson testified that after returning to Henderson he received a phone call telling him that if someone called and asked about Shima Auto Sales to say he didn’t know anything about it. Cornell told him the owner had been badly beaten, Robinson testified, and that Cornell said he had nothing to do with it but that the man probably “had screwed a lot of people over.”
One of his duties as an initiate was to drive around with Rosa and Williams looking for ex-Latin Kings, Robinson testified. They planned to go burn down the house of a former Latin King whose street name was Munchy located across the street from the DH Griffin headquarters on the day before New Year’s Eve of 2009.
Assistant US Attorney Robert AJ Lang asked Robinson for the reason behind the planned arson.
“Because they were ex-kings and from what I was told they were guilty of treason against the inca,” Robinson responded.
Among the reasons he went along with the plan, Robinson said, was that he suddenly needed personal support.
“I realized I was about to be homeless,” he testified. “I got out of JobCorps. And Jorge Cornell offered me a place to stay. He said he didn’t believe in kings being homeless.”
Eventually the arson was called off, Robinson said, because Velasquez was caught trying to transport machetes on the Amtrak train, and Cornell thought there would be too much law enforcement attention on the Latin Kings. Robinson testified under cross-examination that Cornell needed the machetes for self-protection because as an ex-felon he was not legally allowed to possess a firearm.
Cornell’s generosity and trust also extended to Robinson’s friend, Charles Moore. The two had been roommates in AmeriCorps, Robinson said, but Moore left AmeriCorps because he had a drinking problem. He moved in with his mother in Virginia, but she put him out of her house. Robinson said he vouched for Robinson, and Cornell invited him to move into the West Terrell Street house, too.
A party hosted by Eric Ginsburg, who is now a reporter with YES! Weekly, came up during Robinson’s testimony. Robinson said that he, Moore, Williams and Russell Kilfoil, one of the defendants who is known as Peaceful, were invited to Ginsburg’s house. Robinson said he stepped outside and observed two individuals who were drunk who were beating on the hood of the car owned by Kilfoil’s girlfriend, who was known as Midget. Robinson said Kilfoil asked one of the individuals to apologize and he refused. Williams hit the individual at his own volition, Robinson said, and then Moore hit him again after Kilfoil allegedly said, “Hit him because he’s crying.”
Ginsburg was hired as a reporter by YES! Weekly in the fall of 2011, after completing an eight-month internship that began in January. He served as campaign manager for Cornell’s 2009 bid for Greensboro City Council prior to joining YES! Weekly.
Moore and Williams, like Robinson, have struck plea deals with the government and are expected to testify in coming weeks.
In December 2009, Robinson said Cornell sent him and Velasquez over to Kilfoil’s house to confront him about rumors that he had been involved in cocaine in some way. Robinson testified under cross-examination that Cornell did not allow members to use or sell drugs. Robinson agreed with public defender Brian Aus that Kilfoil had been on leave from the Latin Kings at the time because he had a newborn baby and was working for 2 Men and a Truck. Cornell and Kilfoil are biological brothers. Robinson testified that Kilfoil attended a Latin Kings Christmas dinner and the previous tension between the two was resolved.
Kilfoil was soon serving as first crown for the Greensboro chapter. On Feb. 2, 2010, Robinson testified, he and some other Latin Kings were at the Beloved Community Center in a playroom used for toddlers upstairs. Robinson said Kilfoil asked him to recite his lessons – information Latin Kings must memorize pertaining to structure, symbols and creeds. Robinson demonstrated his proficiency, and Kilfoil officiated a ceremony to make him a member on the spot.
Much of the Latin Kings time was consumed during the period of his membership with dealing with real or perceived adversaries, Robinson testified. One incident involved a black Mercedes driven by Michelle, Cornell’s girlfriend at the time, getting shot up while parked in the garage at her condominium. At first, Robinson testified, Cornell speculated that the culprit was Jason Paul Yates, a Latin King with whom Cornell had experienced a falling out.
Yates is also a defendant in the government racketeering indictment, but he will be tried separately because his public defender told the court she was unprepared to go to court with the other six defendants.
Another theory soon surfaced.
“A lady in the condo said she saw two black males running away,” Robinson testified. “Cornell thought the FBI may have set it up to get us to retaliate against other people.”
But Robinson’s testimony also indicated that Cornell didn’t need outside provocation to come into conflict with others. He said Cornell would scour the social network MySpace looking for people claiming to be Latin Kings across the state “and tell them to fall in place,” in other words to recognize his authority and report to him.
Robinson said Cornell rented a minivan. Cornell, Robinson, Rosa, Williams, Moore and a king named Chico drove down to Lumberton to meet King Tago. Robinson said King Tago told them he had been crowned in prison by King Bear. That is the street name for Robert Vasquez Jr., a Latin King who had become estranged from Cornell by that time. Robert Vasquez’s brothers, Anthony and Daniel, were also Latin Kings who were no longer welcome in Cornell’s group. Cornell told Tago that he needed to report to him, Robinson testified.
“There was no threat made,” Robinson said. “The only threat, if you want to call it that, was they better fall in line.”
What would happen if Tago and the Lumberton chapter didn’t fall in line? Lang asked.
“We would smash ’em out,” Robinson testified, meaning beat them up.
On the drive back to Greensboro, Robinson recalled that Williams remarked that he wished they had guns “to go shoot up Anthony Vasquez’s house.” Robinson volunteered that his mother’s girlfriend had an AK-47 assault rifle and a shotgun. He said Cornell said he “would recommend it,” but that he wouldn’t tell Williams and Robinson to carry out the attack “because I don’t want to get caught up in it.”
Robinson testified that Cornell instructed them to get in touch with Kilfoil and bring him along, but Kilfoil backed out. Robinson and Williams traveled alone to his mother’s house in Winston-Salem and broke in with a credit card to steal the AK-47 and shotgun.
Robinson testified that they had discussed walking up with the guns and firing on the house. But Robinson thought a better plan would be for Williams to drive while Robinson fired from the passenger seat. Robinson said Williams told him he had a vendetta against Vasquez because he had invaded his house and stolen weapons. The first time they went out to launch the attack there were too many police in the area, Robinson testified. The second time, he said, “Williams felt it wasn’t a good idea, and I didn’t want to do it if he was going to change his mind.”
Robinson recalled, “I called Russell Kilfoil. He said, ‘All right, don’t worry about it,’ and canceled it.”
Christopher B. Shella, the public defender for Randolph Kilfoil – Jorge Cornell and Russell Kilfoil’s brother – heaped scorn on Robinson’s testimony.
“Had you ever handled those weapons before?” Shella asked.
“No,” Robinson responded.
“Had you ever fired an AK-47?”
After aborting the mission, Robinson said they decided to take the weapons back to Winston-Salem. That resulted in a well-publicized early-morning traffic stop in April 2010. The Greensboro police officer who made the stop based on a purported traffic violation initially did not see the weapons in the second row of the minivan. But when he called for backup, the weapons were discovered. Robinson and Williams were charged with carrying concealed weapons.
Michael Patrick, Jorge Cornell’s public defender, tried unsuccessfully to have the firearms suppressed as evidence on grounds that the traffic stop violated Cornell’s constitutional right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure considering that he had rented the van. Judge James A. Beaty issued an order denying the defense motion.
Robinson testified under cross-examination that he lied when he told the Greensboro police that the weapons belonged to him.
Robinson testified that Cornell instigated many of the plans for violent strikes against former members.
“Cornell said we need to start handling these ex-kings,” Robinson testified. “He said, ‘There’s no need to sit around. We need to be proactive.’”
Robinson testified that a king named Ghost talked about tying an ex-king named Allan Jordan up and cutting out his tongue. Cornell and other kings allegedly discussed firebombing Anthony Vasquez’s house. Robinson testified that when the group learned that King Hova, or Jose Lugo, had been working as an FBI informant, he went to Hova’s girlfriend’s house. When he couldn’t locate Hova, Robinson said he smashed the window out of Hova’s girlfriend’s car.
Robinson also testified that he and Moore wrote bad checks to each other for about three weeks, garnering more than $2,500 by defrauding banks. He said that for every check they cashed they gave Cornell a cut of $50 to $100.
And Robinson said that the kings in Greensboro discussed burning down a house owned by Williams’ grandmother to collect the insurance money, specifically mentioning Cornell.
“Cornell threatened to kick Williams out of the house if he didn’t pay his rent,” Robinson testified. “He filled Bud Light bottles with kerosene and went over there. I listened on the police scanner on my cell phone, and heard about the fire. Williams came back to us smelling like kerosene. I told him he should have burned his clothes because it smelled terrible.”
Robinson said Williams ended up fleeing to New Jersey, where his mother lived, and Cornell never received any of the insurance proceeds.
“Cornell said he wanted $10,000 of it or he was going to send some kings up to her house in New Jersey,” Robinson said.
Robinson said the Latin Kings had some problems with Bloods in Smith Homes and Hairston Apartments, two nearby public housing projects. Moore was jumped by some Bloods because they thought he stole from them. Robinson said a universal – a gathering of Latin Kings from across the state – was called to deal with the conflict, and Cornell tried to reach the Bloods leader to resolve the matter.
But no accord was reached through the Bloods leadership, so Robinson said a coalition of Latin Kings and Crips organized a drive-by. Robinson testified that Velasquez drove the car, while King Chico and a Crip named Cole shot from within the car at a Bloods house.
Robinson said at one point he moved to Charlotte and ended up “in bad standing” with the Latin Kings, receiving Facebook messages from kings who told him he was “stripped” and that he was a “coward.” He returned to Greensboro in October to face his charges related to guns found in the minivan. A number of kings, including Moore, Russell Kilfoil and Carlos Coleman, a defendant also known as Spanky, showed up at Guilford County Courthouse in Greensboro ostensibly to support him, but Robinson testified they were actually there to intimidate him.
They were coming up the stairs to the plaza level, Robinson testified, when he saw Anthony Vasquez. Robinson said he saw Kilfoil take a swing at Vasquez as he exited the courthouse. Robinson had been talking with his lawyer, Chris Brook, but when he saw the altercation ensue, he ran out of the courthouse with Coleman and Moore. A surveillance video shown to the jury shows Kilfoil swinging at Vasquez, following by Robinson, Coleman and Moore joining in a chase around the front of the courthouse.
“We took him to the ground and beat him up,” Robinson testified.
Why, if he had just received probation, did Robinson commit an assault in front of the courthouse where it was certain to be captured by surveillance cameras, public defender Brian Aus asked.
“It’s basically like a habit,” Robinson responded.
“He’s the first crown,” he added, referring to Kilfoil. “By being the first crown I had to respond.”
Robinson said the Latin Kings retreated to the Beloved Community Center “to hide out,” but Vasquez found them there and tried to fight them.
“Cornell was happy that it happened,” Robinson testified. “He said, ‘It’s like Christmas finally came.’”
Robinson’s testimony revealed yet another dimension of internal conflict in the North Carolina Latin Kings.
He said he learned that Coleman had been hanging out with Bloods in Raleigh and had robbed a Burger King. Either the robbery, the association with the Bloods or both disappointed Cornell.
Robinson testified that a meeting of all the first crowns, or chapter leaders, was called in Greensboro to decide Coleman’s fate. As first crown of Charlotte at the time, Robinson was obligated to attend. Robinson said a third crown, or enforcer, held Coleman in a separate room while the first crowns took a vote. He and Russell Kilfoil vouched for Coleman and said he deserved another chance, Robinson testified. That essentially tied the vote.
“Coleman was brought into the room,” Robinson testified. “There are two guys with machetes raised. He sees what is happening and tears start coming down his cheeks. He says, ‘Oh my.’ Jorge said, ‘You should have thought about that before. But these two brothers said we should give you another chance. So you’re going to report directly to them twice a week.’
“Then he disappeared, and we never saw him again.”
Robinson said he started cooperating with the government in February, about three months after the indictment was handed down. During the discovery process his cooperation was discovered by the other defendants. He said a prisoner named David Fountain called him a “snitch” and told him he would have beaten him up if he wasn’t handcuffed.
“I have worries and concerns,” Robinson said. “I think about it every night. Am I going to make it home? Am I going to make it to the yard.”
Earlier in the day, the government presented testimony from Robert Vasquez Jr.’s girlfriend about a series of shooting at her house.
Ashley Lazo wiped away tears as she described how she took action to protect her two small children from a hail of bullets coming into her house on Keeler Street in Greensboro one night in June 2009.
“I could see the shards of wall dusting over my children,” she testified. “I prayed that they would not get up. Once I saw them, it seemed like the bullets were moving into the furthest corner of the room. I jumped up and tried to cover my children. I crawled with them into the hallway. I called for everyone that was in the house to make sure they were alright. It was then that I felt a burning sting in my upper thigh.”
She realized that she had been shot.
Robert Vasquez Jr. has testified that he is 90 percent certain that the shooter was Russell Kilfoil based on the make and model of the car and the hat the shooter was wearing.
Lazo testified about another shooting later that year when a real gunshot interrupted the action movie she was watching with Robert and Anthony. A bullet pierced the headboard of a bed, but no one was injured. The next day the residents found the letters “MS” scrawled on an outside wall in blue spray paint.
The government also put Greensboro police Officer Eric Rasecke on the stand, who testified that he responded to a “shots fired” call on Keeler Street in on a rainy night in April 2009 at about 3 a.m. At the end of the street he found two cars on either side of the street. Three individuals standing outside the vehicles told Rasecke they were stuck, and excitedly reported that they had been shot at.
Rasecke said he found 12-gauge shotgun shells at the scene. By the time he found the two stranded vehicles and their occupants, he said it had stopped raining, and he observed a dry spot in front of a house he knew to be a Latin King house, suggesting that a vehicle had recently left. He said he did not question anybody at the house.
Rasecke testified under cross-examination that he only “vaguely” knew who lived at the Keeler Street house. He said, “We knew that Jorge Cornell would frequent that house.”