Day 15: North Carolina Latin Kings on trial (expanded)

The US government rested its case in the racketeering trial of seven North Carolina Latin Kings in federal court in Winston-Salem today, and a judge dismissed charges against one of the defendants.

US District Court Judge James A. Beaty Jr. dismissed charges against Carlos Coleman, also known as King Spanky, finding that the government had failed to produce evidence that he participated in two racketeering acts.

Chuck White, Coleman’s court-appointed lawyer, acknowledged there was passing mention of Coleman administering a “physical,” meaning a beating to another member for disciplinary purposes, but argued that the government condoned participation in the activity by its own paid informant.

The government has also presented evidence in the form of surveillance video and testimony that Coleman was part of a group that beat a former member to the ground outside the Guilford County Courthouse.

“There was a spontaneous fight that occurred at the courthouse,” White said. “That was not a racketeering act. It was a misdemeanor at best that resulted in two scraped elbows.”

The judge took up the defendant’s cause as Assistant US Attorney Robert AJ Lang raised objections to dropping him from the case.

“The evidence is that when he was subjected to a physical, he ran away and never came back,” Beaty said. “What overt act are you talking about?”

Lang responded, “We don’t have any overt acts for him. It’s his membership in the conspiracy and his knowledge that racketeering acts were going to be committed.”

Beaty denied the motion to dismiss charges against defendants Jorge Cornell, Russell Kilfoil, Randolph Kilfoil, Samuel Velasquez, Irvin Vasquez and Ernesto Wilson, ruling that a jury should decide whether they are guilty of racketeering activities.

In a day of transition, the government called its final witness, a New York Police Department detective; the judge took testimony with the jury out of the room on a federal civil rights complaint filed on behalf of the Latin Kings; the defense called its first witness to testify about a peace effort led by Cornell; and the judge warned that the lead defendant might face sanctions for communicating with defense witnesses.

In arguing for denial of the defendants’ motion for dismissal, Lang focused on what has come to be known as the “Maplewood shooting,” in which Latin King member Marcelo Ysrael Perez admitted to shooting Rogelio Lopez, a construction worker who was mistaken for a rival gang member. Lang argued that a meeting at Latin King Jason Yates' apartment in which other members were called from Durham and guns were requested established that the organization comprised a criminal racketeering enterprise.

He described a “conspiracy to commit murder,” and said three people had been armed, with one committing an assault. Testimony about a “black rose,” an order that Latin Kings were not to speak about the crime, was further evidence of racketeering, he said. That the assault was committed in retaliation for a concussion received by Anthony Vasquez, “the heir apparent,” was evidence that the assault was committed in furtherance of the organization rather than merely for personal reasons.

Lang said Cornell aided and abetted the assault at Maplewood Apartments, and that he encouraged bank fraud and shared in the proceeds from other members. He tied Cornell to the burglary of Cornerstone Insurance, where his ex-wife was a former employee, calling it an “inside job” in which the Latin Kings leader provided information to the members that carried it out.

Lang said that Russell Kilfoil facilitated and participated in bank fraud and ordered weapons after Cornell was shot. He cited testimony from Robert Vasquez, a former Latin Kings member, that he believed Kilfoil shot at his house.

Randolph Kilfoil, Lang said, had been involved in a robbery at Wal-Mart in 2006. He noted that brothers Anthony Vasquez and Robert Vasquez testified that Kilfoil assisted them in drug sales at bars. Although Randolph Kilfoil has been serving a federal prison sentence since 2010, Lang connected him to the enterprise by citing testimony by Richard Robinson that Kilfoil had called from prison.

Lang argued that Velasquez was a racketeering participant because he had provided machetes to other members in 2007, had been involved in a conspiracy to assault former member Sylvia Lugo and had taken part in an attempted murder at Smith Homes in 2011 in retaliation for the beating of another member.

Irvin Vasquez should remain charged because he had gone to Charlotte to recruit new members, had carried a gun in the back seat of his car and had held the position of third crown at one time, Lang said.

About Wilson, an individual who never joined the Latin Kings and was implicated in a string of robberies for a one-month period in 2007, Lang said, “He’s an associate in fact. He lived with the Latin Kings on Keeler Street. He shared the money.”

Michael Patrick, Cornell’s court-appointed lawyer, argued that there was insufficient evidence to establish that the shooting at Maplewood Apartments was done for the purpose of furthering the Latin Kings enterprise. He added, “There is no evidence that my client was present or provided the weapon.”

Christopher Shella, Randolph Kilfoil’s court-appointed lawyer, argued that the charges against his client should be dismissed because he was in prison for much of the time that the alleged racketeering acts were committed.

Helen Parsonage, the court-appointed lawyer for Irvin Vasquez, argued that the government had not met the requirement to show that her client had participated in two racketeering acts. As to the Maplewood shooting, in which Perez testified that Vasquez accompanied him armed with a gun, Parsonage said, “The evidence indicates this was retaliation on a personal level.”

She added, “The only evidence of my client’s involvement was from the testimony of the shooter, who had clear motivation” as a cooperating witness to help the government obtain convictions and lessen his time.

Curtis Holmes, Wilson’s court-appointed lawyer, cited testimony from Luis Rosa and Allan Jordan that his client “was down here to make some money.”

He said he wouldn’t have had much to say in response if Wilson had been charged with armed robbery, but racketeering didn’t fit because his client never had any interest in joining the Latin Kings.

“There’s not one tattoo; there’s not one piece of clothing,” Holmes said. “The lack of evidence that he was a Latin King weighs strongly for dismissal.

“This work that he did was for his personal, mercenary benefit, and not to advance the enterprise,” Holmes added.

The government’s final witness, New York Police Department Detective David Milani, testified about Latin Kings structure, symbolism, customs, conflict dynamics and criminal activities. As an expert witness, he testified that the North Carolina organization was “modeled directly after the Latin Kings in New York.”

After the lunch break, Patrick called Anita Earls, executive director of the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice, to testify about a civil rights complaint her organization prepared on behalf of the Latin Kings. The hearing was held while members of the jury were out of the courtroom. Patrick declined to comment on the purpose of the hearing during an afternoon break.

Earls testified that she filed the complaint in person with the civil rights division of the US Justice Department in Washington.

“I did not receive any notification of any action whatsoever in connection with that complaint,” Earls testified.

Later, after a delegation of concerned citizens from Greensboro made a follow-up visit to the Justice Department in Washington to press for action on a number of complaints against the police department, Earls said she received a phone call from Julie Fernandez at the department.

“It was her view that this was a gang,” Earls testified, “and because of that they were not going to investigate.”

Lang asked Earls if she ever interviewed alleged victims of the Latin Kings’ crimes or police officers in Greensboro and Charlotte. Earls said she had not. Lang asked her if she had been aware that Latin Kings had been charged in the shooting of Rogelio Lopez at Maplewood Apartments. Earls answered that her staff generally tried to look at charges and their ultimate disposition, but didn't specifically remember the shooting charge.

Patrick introduced into evidence an August 2008 press release stating that Cornell had expressed forgiveness to whomever shot him. Judge Beaty did not allow the jury to hear testimony on the press release after hearing concern from prosecutor Leshia Lee-Dixon that it would essentially amount to “giving testimony from the mouth of Mr. Cornell through a witness.”

After a bench hearing, the judge did allow testimony on a peace agreement among gangs.

“This evidence would be to rebut the government’s general evidence about racketeering practices,” Patrick said, explaining the relevancy of the document.

The Rev. Greg Headen, the first witness called by the defense, testified about the agreement, which he said was forged in the basement of Genesis Baptist Church, where he is the pastor. As noted in the first paragraph of the agreement, Headen testified that the meeting included representatives of the Latin Kings, the Black Peace Stone Nation, the Crips, the Five Percenters, the Piru Bloods and the Nation of Islam.

“I think it was the idea of Jorge Cornell,” testified Headen, whose demeanor suggested humility and timidity before the prosecution. The pastor also said Cornell was shot shortly after the agreement was reached.

Headen testified that he worked with Cornell right up to the time “he was taken from us” in December 2011.

“We were working together on many things,” Headen said. “There was a black-brown conference that was hosted at my church. Latin King brothers and sisters came to us and requested that we counsel them. They poured out their hearts to us. They sponsored a picnic behind Rev. [Nelson] Johnson’s church. There were members of other street organizations there.”

Under cross-examination by Lang, Headen testified that he did not attend “universals,” or meetings, at the Latin Kings house on Terrell Street, and was not invited to do so.

In a tone much softer than his examination of former gang members, law enforcement officers and other government witnesses, Lang asked Headen about conflict between Cornell’s group and other Latin Kings.

“We talked some because of his commitment to peace,” Headen testified. “There were some people who were not living up the rules. And they were put out of the group. He told me about that.”

The second witness called by Cornell was Guilford County Sheriff’s Office Detective John Lowes, a co-case manager in the racketeering investigation and the primary handler of informant Jose Lugo. Lowes authenticated an audio recording played for the jury, and confirmed that it documented a July 2010 traffic stop near the end of the period that Lugo wore a wire for the government.

Lugo can be heard in the recording referencing Lowes’ name to a law enforcement officer and admonishing the officer: “I can’t tell you my business, but you should know.”

The conversation then turns friendly, and the officer says, “I’m not going to write somebody your age or our age a ticket because you have a baby.”

Later, as the car starts moving again, Lugo can be heard exulting to a female companion: “I can move all these kilos of cocaine…. Over here, I’m the motherfucking man…. I don’t have any problems…. I don’t ever have to go to court…. You come over here I will get away with more shit than I will in Charlotte. I should have moved over here a long time ago.”

The day opened with discussion about a motion to sanction Cornell that was filed by the government. Lee-Dixon said Cornell has had communication with Rev. Johnson and Alana Cornell, the defendant’s ex-wife and the mother of his two daughters.

Lee-Dixon said recordings of phone calls obtained by the government indicate that Cornell has had extensive conversations with the two about different aspects of the trial, including grand jury testimony. She said she believes the conversations violate Judge Beaty’s sequestration order at the beginning of the trial, which prohibits witnesses from being present in court prior to their testimony.

“Our concern is if these witnesses come to the stand, their testimony could be tainted,” the prosecutor said.

Lee-Dixon also expressed concern that a person identified only by the initial D has been observing the trial and providing notes to Johnson, and that during a press conference (see story) last week Johnson mentioned the name of a potential defense witness who had been identified by one of the government’s potential witnesses as someone who had stated that he shot Cornell.

Judge Beaty, who was visibly angry, admonished from the bench that “any witness who speaks to another witness about what is heard in court may be subject to contempt of court.”

The government notes in its motion that “sequestration of trial witnesses serves the important purpose of preventing the possibility of one witness shaping his testimony to serve a specific purpose based on what other witnesses have provided.”

The government's motion alleges that on the first day of the trial, Cornell made phone calls to Johnson and “D,” and discussed trial testimony and the judge’s sequestration order.

“Just as the defendant has a right to a fair trial by jury, the government also holds this right, which will be completely undermined if the defense is allowed to call two witnesses whose testimony has been so tainted and influenced by defendant Cornell and the information he has provided them concerning the specifics of so many of the government’s substantive witnesses,” the motion argues. “To allow these two witnesses to testify in the face of defendant’s intentional, repeated violation of this court’s sequestration order would be to permit willful, obstructionist conduct to pass without serious consequence. The government therefore respectfully requests that this court prohibit Reverend Johnson and Alana Cornell from testifying and thus preserve the integrity and fundamental fairness of this trial.”

The judge is expected to determine whether sanctions should be applied tomorrow morning. He told members of the jury they should be prepared to return to court at 2 p.m.

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