The US government and defense attorneys for seven North Carolina Latin Kings members presented clashing characterizations of the organization, as a federal criminal racketeering trial got underway in Winston-Salem on Monday.
Assistant US Attorney Robert AJ Lang pledged to members of the jury that the government would prove that each of the defendants entered into a conspiracy by agreeing that they would individually commit criminal acts such as arson, robbery, kidnapping, bank fraud and the sales of narcotics. He told the jury that former members would talk about an organization “that was ruled by violence and fear” by leader Jorge Cornell, AKA King Jay; about beatings, or “physicals,” meted out for violation of rules; about an enterprise with a “robust symbology” of manifestoes, hand signs, salutes, clothing and rituals”; and about acts of retaliation against rivals and former members alike.
“The Latin Kings’ colors are gold and black,” the prosecutor concluded. “Often gold by day and black by night.”
Michael Patrick, Cornell’s public defender, told the jury there was no question his client was the leader of the North Carolina Latin Kings. But he said they would hear evidence from defense witnesses at odds with the picture created by the government. He told them they would hear from a school board member who appointed Cornell to the school safety committee who would testify that the defendant gave names of middle-school aged wannabe Latin Kings to school officials so they could deter the youngsters; from various community members who were helping Cornell set up a temporary labor agency to provide jobs to ex-felons; from college professors who invited the defendant to speak to their classes; and from pastors who would testify that he helped broker a peace pact between street gangs.
“The government will paint a picture that the Latin Kings in Greensboro were a very active street gang,” Patrick said. “The evidence will show that the Latin Kings were never a successful gang. The government wants to say they were big-time drug dealers. In fact, they rarely had any resources. They were hardly scraping by. They weren’t very organized.”
The North Carolina Latin Kings formed in 2005, and have maintained a public and controversial profile in Greensboro since 2008. Members have repeatedly accused the Greensboro Police Department gang unit of harassment, and Cornell further thrust himself into the spotlight by running twice for city council.
About 25 supporters packed the gallery on Monday. Several, including support committee member Saralee Gallien; the Rev. Nelson Johnson; and Eric Ginsburg, a reporter who managed Cornell’s first city council campaign before joining the staff of YES! Weekly, had to leave after opening statements because they have been identified as potential witnesses for Cornell. (This reporter was also listed as a potential witness, but expressed objections to Patrick about the prospect of being called to testify, and was dropped after it was determined that his testimony would not be useful.)
The defense attorneys asked members of the jury to keep an open mind as they reviewed the government’s evidence, noting that it would be three or four weeks into the six-week trial before they had an opportunity to put defense witnesses on the stand.
Lang preempted inevitable efforts by the defense attorneys to undermine the credibility of former members taking the stand to testify for the government, including three brothers — Anthony, Robert and Daniel Vasquez — by laying out their liabilities.
“They didn’t like the structure,” the prosecutor said. “They didn’t like the rules. They didn’t like the beatings. Most of them are not going to be put up for citizen of the year. They come with some baggage. They were paid, many of them, to provide information and in some cases had their sentences reduced for cooperating with law enforcement. Some witnesses, you will hear from, were paid by the FBI.”
Patrick said the Vasquezes were part of faction that attempted to vote Cornell out of leadership in 2008, and left the organization after the unsuccessful coup, later committing crimes in Wake County.
The government called its first witnesses after opening statements, beginning with a Korean-American dry-cleaner owner who wiped away tears as he testified that he bled from his head after being struck by the butt of pistol in the commission of a robbery, and ending with Anthony Vasquez, who testified that he was recruited to join the North Carolina Latin Kings at the age of 13 and starting fighting with rival gang members and dealing drugs in compliance with Cornell’s orders.
Curtis Scott Holmes, the attorney for defendant Ernesto Wilson, AKA King Yayo, said his client had been charged as part of the racketeering case on the basis of five robberies during a one-month period in early 2007. In each case, he said, no witness interviewed during the initial investigations ever identified Wilson as a suspect. In the case of 250 Cleaners, Holmes said that aside from a surveillance video of the incident, the only evidence the government would present would be statements from cooperating witnesses, who had something to gain from their testimony.
John Choe described through an interpreter how he had been preparing to close his store on High Point Road at about 7 p.m. when a young man wearing a black do-rag and a white sleeveless shirt came in and ask him to change a $20. The young man left with his change, and soon afterwards three young men wearing hooded sweatshirts and carrying guns returned and demanded money from the cash register. Cho’s testimony described and the video showed how the robbers pointed guns repeatedly hit him before carrying out two cash registers and the contents of the business owner’s wallet.
Aaron McKinney, who operated a flea market next door to the dry cleaner, testified that he wrote down the license plate number of a Navy blue Jetta that he saw leaving the scene. Guilford County Sheriff’s Deputy David K. Jones later tracked the vehicle to a home on Pilot Ridge Court in the Adams Farm area of Greensboro. Jones testified he found a black do-rag and a white T-shirt in the car, and that Luis Rosa admitted to being the driver. Luis Alberto Rosa, AKA King Speechless, is one of 14 original defendants, but has pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with the government.
Anthony Vasquez, who took the stand wearing a flannel shirt, blue jeans and a long goatee, testified that Cornell lived with him at a house on Keeler Street in 2007 and 2008. Wilson, a Cuban immigrant who came to North Carolina to make money, also stayed at the house from time to time. Vasquez testified that the Latin Kings robbed 250 Cleaners, and that the crime was planned by Wilson and Rosa, along with Steaphan Acencio-Vasquez, another defendant who has agreed to cooperate with the government, and a fourth person named Allen Jordan. Vasquez said Cornell provided two .380-caliber handguns for the robbery, and partook in the spoils when the four returned to the house on Keeler Street with the cash.
Vasquez said that during his initiation period — known as “observation” — Cornell ordered him to fight members of the Sureños and MS-13 gangs, but he gave inconsistent testimony. He first said he might have fought with rival gangs three times and later saying it was “too many to count.”
Under direct examination by Leshia Lee-Dixon, a prosecutor with the US Justice Department’s organized crime and gang section in Washington, DC, Vasquez also testified that he sold powder cocaine provided by Cornell at Westgate Apartments and at the Paraiso club at the ages of 13 and 14, and then turned over the proceeds to Cornell.
Vasquez testified that during his probation period Cornell provided him with lessons in the form of typewritten pages, called “manifestoes,” that explained the rules of the organization. He learned the five points of the Latin Kings belief system: love, honor, obedience, sacrifice and righteousness. He learned the colors — black and gold — and the tattoos — a five-point crown and a lion. He demonstrated two hand signs for the jury.
Vasquez said members were required to attend weekly meetings and contribute dues of $5 per week that were used for bonding members out of jail, buying food and purchasing firearms. Failure to pay dues resulted in beatings from the neck down, Vasquez testified.
Providing further ammunition for the government’s claim that the North Carolina Latin Kings were a criminal enterprise organized and controlled by Cornell, Vasquez also testified that Wilson, Acencio-Vasquez and Jordan robbed an Express Laundry, splitting up the proceeds with Cornell and himself. He said he was part of a group that broke into a trailer parked in front of Roses Department Store on Farmington Drive, and unloaded lanterns, picture frames and other household goods that were sold by Cornell at a flea market.
Cornell and his two brothers — Russell Kilfoil, AKA King Peaceful, and Randolph Kilfoil, AKA King Paul — with their lawyers along the front row during the court proceedings. The four other defendants — Wilson; Samuel Velazquez, AKA King Hype; Irvin Vasquez, AKA King Dice; and Carlos Coleman, AKA King Spanky — sat along a side wall. A tattoo reading “Code of silence” could be seen on the back of Cornell’s neck. During Anthony Vasquez’s testimony, Cornell exchanged glances with a young woman in the gallery. When Judge James A. Beaty Jr. called a break, a bailiff questioned the young woman on whether she was trying to communicate with the defendants.
Vasquez testified that the Latin Kings maintained a rule of “no law enforcement cooperation whatsoever.”
Patrick prepared the jury for what might possibly be the most damaging testimony against his client. He told them they would near about an April 2008 shooting at Maplewoods Apartments.
“The victim will testify he was in his apartment and walked out and got shot,” Patrick said. “Marcelo Perez was a Latin King and he is the person who is accused of being the shooter. You’ll hear that the victim identified a different shooter initially…. What you will not hear is that Mr. Cornell was there. You’ll have to decide whether Mr. Cornell aided and abetted an assault with a dangerous weapon.”
Vasquez testified that he had been ambushed by some rival gang members earlier in the day, and was hospitalized with a concussion. Later that day he met up with Cornell and other members, and Vasquez testified that Cornell said “they were going to go handle it,” meaning “they were going to go commit an act of violence” in retaliation. Anthony Vasquez said Cornell, Irvin Vasquez, King Sacrifice — named in the indictment as defendant Marcelo Yrsrael Perez — and two others left for about an hour, but did not discuss what had happened when they returned.
Patrick predicted that two additional allegations concerning Cornell will fall apart once the jury hears all the evidence.
Patrick said members of the jury will hear evidence about an arson of a house on Kirkman Street that burned in July 2010. The government alleges that Cornell and other members tried to profit from insurance proceeds after the house was burned in an arson. But Patrick said the owner of the house will testify that no money was ever paid out to Cornell from the policy.
And the government contends that Cornell and Russell Kilfoil committed extortion against Alma Esparza, an assistant manager of a cell phone store at Four Seasons Town Center in early 2008.
“She had the duty of taking the deposits to the bank,” Patrick said. “Over a period of weeks she took the money home and failed to make the deposits. She bought several thousand dollars of jewelry. They found the empty bag at her apartment. She was literally caught holding the bag. Her initial statements to the police were that she took the money and no one else had anything to do with it. She eventually told the police that Russell Kilfoil, who was her boyfriend, and Mr. Cornell forced her to turn over the money. She was convicted of that crime.”