Day 14: North Carolina Latin Kings on trial

Much of the morning session in the 14th day of a federal racketeering trial of members of the North Carolina Latin Kings was consumed by testimony from Guilford County Sheriff’s Office Detective John Lowes, a member of the FBI Safe Streets Task Force who was a co-case manager in the investigation of the North Carolina Latin Kings.

Establishing his credentials, Lowes testified that he has taken numerous courses on gang-related subjects, such as identification and combat dynamics. He said he has received more than 150 hours of training, including courses on how to handle informants. He said he has participated in the Central American Law Enforcement Exchange and has access to the National Gang Intelligence Center.

Lowes told the jury that a gang is typically defined as a group of three or more people that have a common sign or name and whose members have committed crimes in the past or continue to do so, and who create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation in the community.  

“Some are motivated by money,” he added. He described typical roles such as “leader,” “trusted advisors” and “foot soldiers.” 

Prosecutor Leshia Lee-Dixon asked Lowes to explain the typical purposes of retaliation by gangs. 

“The gang member and gang, most of the time they want respect,” Lowes testified, “and if they don’t get it they will retaliate, either with the same level of force or more.” 

“Are there any limits to the retaliation?” Lee-Dixon asked. 

“No, there are no limits,” Lowes responded. 

Lowes gave extensive testimony about the role of common names, colors and symbols in maintaining the identity of a gang. 

“There are a bunch of groups that have signs, symbols and a name, the Masons, for example,” Michael Patrick, the court-appointed lawyer for Jorge Cornell, said. Lowes agreed. 

“If a group of Masons decided to rob banks they could be a gang,” Patrick continued. 

“They could be,” Lowes concurred. 

Patrick asked Lowes if gangs tend to specialize in certain types of activities. 

“I wouldn’t say ‘specialize,’” Lowes responded. “Most gangs, the ones I investigate, are involved in criminal activities.” 

“Are there gangs in Greensboro that are dominant in drug dealing?” Patrick asked. 

Lee-Dixon quickly objected, citing relevance, and Judge James A. Beaty sustained. 

“Are you aware that there is a rule in the Latin Kings against selling drugs?” Patrick asked. 

“I understand there is a rule like that, yes,” Lowes responded. “I think it’s specific to heroin.” 

Patrick attempted to introduce the topic of Cornell’s proclamation in 2008 that he was pursuing a peace agreement among gangs, but the judge sustained an objection from the government. 

Lowes also testified about his handling of informant Jose Lugo, who reported to him three or four times a week. Lowes said he also determined the amount of pay Lugo should receive based on “what we felt was the accuracy of information.” 

Lowes described two incidents in which he said Lugo’s actions thwarted crimes by the Latin Kings. 

“One of the earlier incidents was the gang asking for guns to be brought up from Charlotte after Jorge had been shot,” Lowes testified, without specifying what crime might have been committed had the firearms fallen into the defendants’ hands. 

Lowes also testified, “The Latin Kings under the leadership of Jorge Cornell had formulated a plan to firebomb a house and later decided to firebomb a vehicle.” 

Later, Brian Aus, the court-appointed lawyer for defendant Russell Kilfoil, cross-examined Lowes, asking if any of the recordings Lugo made while wearing a wire indicated that the informant instructed members of the Latin Kings on how to make firebombs. 

“There is mention on the audiotape about that,” Lowes testified. 

Aus tried to prod Lowes further. 

 “It’s fair to say that it is Russell Kilfoil that is saying, ‘Hey, this is not a good idea,’” Aus said. 

Lowes did not concur, and Aus directed the task force officer to a passage in the transcript that quotes Kilfoil as saying, “You want to put this shit down, bro. You in a rush.” 

Lowes testified that Lugo called his handlers to inform them of plans to firebomb a house. 

“He had called and said there was a potential for violence,” Lowe said. “And we called the Greensboro Police Department and had them put additional officers in that area.” 

Lowes gave detailed testimony about staking out Hanes-Lineberry funeral home on High Point Road in November 2007, so he could videotape Latin Kings members as they attended the wake of a member named Samuel Uscanga. 

Under cross-examination, Lowes testified that he identified eight Latin Kings out of about 100 people who attended the wake, that most were dressed in black clothing and other somber attire, that there were no altercations and no criminal activity at the funeral home. 

Specific to his investigation of the North Carolina Latin Kings, Lowes testified, “The hierarchy starts at the very top with the inca and goes through a progression of one to five with the supreme, and one through five with the crown structure. 

“I learned the leader of the Latin Kings would direct a lot of the criminal activity that occurred, and if he didn’t direct it, he condoned it,” the task force officer continued. “And he would also participate in the crimes.” 

Lee-Dixon asked Lowes how the Latin Kings’ hierarchy was established. 

“Members would move up the hierarchy by putting in work,” Lowes testified. “Putting in work involved committing crimes to benefit the organization and contributing funds to the organization when needed.” 

“How many crimes were committed by Latin Kings in North Carolina?” Lee-Dixon asked. 

Judge Beaty sustained an objection by the defense, preventing Lowes from answering. 

Patrick asked the task force officer if he knew that the Latin Kings started out as an organization dedicated to helping people. Judge Beaty overruled an objection by the prosecution. 

“Primarily,” Lowes responded. “That’s how they represent themselves.” 

“Do you have any information to contradict that?” Patrick asked. 

“Personally, no, I do not,” Lowes said. 

A truncated afternoon session was devoted to testimony from Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Special Agent Ernie Driver, who testified about the place of manufacture, value and operability of numerous firearms seized as evidence over the course of the FBI investigation. Through Driver’s testimony the government meticulously established that the weapons were manufactured in other states or countries and then recovered in North Carolina, and that they had to have been transported across state lines and therefore affected interstate and foreign commerce. 

The serial numbers of at least two of the guns had been obliterated, and Driver testified that a Glock pistol had been sold to Mixhay Keophakhoun by a Greensboro retailer in 2005. Keophakhoun has testified that his pistol was stolen during the robbery of his laundry in 2007. Witnesses who were members of the Latin Kings at the time have testified that they committed the robbery.

While the jury was out of the courtroom, Judge Beaty held a hearing on a motion to quash filed by lawyer Bruce Lee on behalf of Helen Carlene Buscemi, one of the witnesses subpoenaed by the defense. Buscemi is the grandmother of Wesley Williams, one of the defendants who has struck a plea deal with the government. 

Lee said Buscemi suffers from a urinary tract infection and chronic back pain, and that traveling from her residence in Oklahoma would be difficult. 

Patrick noted that the government would pay Buscemi’s travel expenses. He said that based on an interview with her over the summer her testimony would be critical for the defense. Witnesses for the government have testified that Williams burned down his grandmother’s house to collect insurance money, and that Cornell made a phone call to Williams’ mother in New Jersey to try to get a cut of the payout. 

“She flat out denies all of that,” Patrick said. 

Judge Beaty denied the motion to quash, but allowed Buscemi to push back her appearance by two days. 

 Lee-Dixon said she anticipates that the government will rest its case on Tuesday.

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