Day 9: North Carolina Latin Kings on trial

Jose Lugo’s personal appearance presented a contrast with other former Latin Kings who have testified for the US government in orange jail jumpsuits and leg irons: Lugo took the oath in a suit and tie, wearing a styled Mohawk and earrings.

Lugo, whose street name was Hova, explained in his testimony on Thursday in the racketeering trial of six North Carolina Latin Kings in Winston-Salem how he wore a wire for the FBI as a Charlotte Latin King who intentionally gravitated to North Carolina Latin King statewide leader Jorge Cornell’s Greensboro group to gather intelligence for law enforcement. He talked about arranging to procure firearms for the Greensboro Latin Kings, buying a handgun from Cornell, plotting to attack ex-members and ordering a beating to discipline a member who had violated orders – all while feeding audio recordings to a law enforcement task force.

“I had to be a good liar,” Lugo testified. “I had to be manipulating. I was doing a little bit of everything.”

Lugo testified that he became an informant for the FBI and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department in 2008 right around the time Cornell was shot in Greensboro. Later, he was told to report to Guilford County Sheriff’s Office Deputy John Lowes, who was part of an FBI task force.

A native of Caracas, Venezuela, Lugo said his status as a permanent resident alien made him seriously consider the consequences of his involvement with the Latin Kings, influencing his decision to work with law enforcement. He said he was paid for his services, but did not specify an amount.

“There was a serious incident in South Carolina with MS-13 where they all got rounded up and deported,” Lugo testified. “I said, ‘That’s not going to happen to me.’ But it was going to happen sooner or later.”

Part of the role Lugo said he played as a Latin King was ordering a “physical,” or a beating on Bless, a Texas native named Jesus Alvarenga who also became a Latin King in Charlotte and migrated to Greensboro. Alvarenga testified that he received discipline because he had argued with Lugo outside a gas station causing the clerk to call the police while a group of Latin Kings were on their way to a Greensboro City Council meeting. The incident displeased Cornell because it drew negative attention at a time when he was running for city council.

The government played an audio recording made by Lugo of Alvarenga receiving a one-minute “physical” involving strikes to the chest below the neck from King Bam, or Wesley Williams. The sound of punching can be heard, followed by Alvarenga’s agonized cries. During the beating another Latin King from Charlotte, Jonathan Benitez, or King Bird, can be heard counseling Alvarenga: “Calm down and breathe. Inhale, my brother. Inhale and exhale.”

Alvarenga testified that Cornell left before the beating, but Hova called him afterwards to report how it went. Later that night, Cornell took everyone out for pizza.

Lugo said he had discouraged Alvarenga from joining the Latin Kings when they lived in Charlotte.

“He was very persistent about coming to me in the Latin Kings,” Lugo said. “I said, ‘No, I know what I’m into.’ I didn’t realize it at the time, but he had affiliated with a ghost tribe, and they were ordered to report to Jay. He was already in that bunch, so we had no choice but to take him in.”

Alvarenga’s testimony was different.

He said that he knew Hova before either of them became Latin Kings, and even went to church with Hova’s mother, who was a Jehovah’s Witness. He went to parties in the UNC-Charlotte area with Hova and another guy named Flaco. Alvarenga testified that Hova and Flaco joined a set of the Latin Kings, and Hova tried to recruit him. Alvarenga said he resisted Hova’s overture, but that the two remained friends. He said Hova came to see him at his father’s garage, and they smoked a couple blunts of marijuana together.

“They were like stick-up kids,” Alvarenga said of Hova and Flaco. “They would brag about robbing Mexicans and illegal people. I didn’t want to have anything to do with that. They would rob illegal immigrants, people who won’t report it to the police because nine to one they’ll get deported.”

Later, Alvarenga said he sold some marijuana to Bird, and the two became close friends. Bird encouraged him to join the Latin Kings, but Alvarenga told him he had no interest because of what he knew of Hova and Flaco’s activities. Alvarenga recounted that Bird told him that he reported to the Bloodline Latin Kings in New York, which emphasized peace and unity. He ended up joining Bird’s Latin King group in Charlotte. But that group was ordered to report to Cornell, who in turn reported to the Manifest Latin Kings in Chicago. Alvarenga said Bird “had to call New York to get authorization to sign under King Jay.”

The alleged lines of loyalty are somewhat confused by the fact that Cornell comes from Brooklyn, NY and has cited King Tone, the onetime leader of the New York Latin Kings, as a mentor, while Jason Yates, with whom Cornell came into conflict, comes from Chicago.

Alvarenga said he had a dispute with his father and decided to move to Greensboro. He lived with other Latin Kings first on Kirkman Street and then on West Terrell Street.

Alvarenga testified that he, Flaco, Hova and Bam sold bootleg DVDs to make money.

“We would get funding from Jay,” he said. “And we would give him a fee for his investment.”

He used the money he earned to buy clothes and marijuana. Alvarenga said he continued to sell marijuana in Greensboro. Cornell allowed him to sell marijuana, but forbade Latin Kings members from selling crack or powder cocaine.

Alvarenga said that not long after his physical he fled Greensboro. He said he approached a woman at McDonald’s and explained that he was trying to get away from a gang. The woman and her husband threw some laundry on top of him, drove him to the bus station and contacted his mother, who wired some money to cover his fare to Charlotte.

Alvarenga said he left his EBT food stamp card with all the rest of his belongings at the West Terrell Street house. His PIN number was written on a sticky note affixed to the back of the card. He said he later learned that his card had been used after he left.

Alvarenga called the Greensboro Police Department after fleeing to Charlotte. He testified that he told the police: “If I were going to get murdered… that it would be because of King Jay’s authorization.”

The FBI contacted him soon afterwards, and he said he ended up receiving about $700 from the agency in 2009 for his assistance.

In late 2008, Lugo said he agreed to procure guns for the Greensboro group. Transportation was a challenge, so the FBI provided Lugo with a rental vehicle. Outside of Greensboro near the Grandover Resort, Detective Lowes arranged to have the car stopped, and the guns were confiscated. Lugo said there was no punishment from the Greensboro Latin Kings for failing to make the delivery.

The government played several recordings made by Lugo for the jury on Thursday. The recordings are of poor quality, many of the statements are inaudible or incomprehensible and at times it is difficult to tell who is speaking. The government provided members of the jury with transcripts to help follow the audio, but Judge James A. Beaty Jr. cautioned them that where the audio and transcripts appeared to conflict they should rely on the audio.

In one of the recordings a voice that sounds like Cornell’s can be heard saying that Bless owed him $320 for unpaid rent when he left Greensboro. “We got his food stamp card,” the person says. “We took $200 off that.”

Other recordings appear to capture Cornell talking to other members about his desire to build the organization and how ranking members need to exercise more authority to impose his control over wayward Latin Kings.

Lugo named several ex-members who were considered rivals in late 2009, including Yates, Cesar Herrera, Allan Jordan and the Vasquez brothers. None of the audio purportedly related to the conflict could be understood when the recording was played in court.

“In December 2009, we gathered up,” Lugo testified. “We went to these people’s houses late at night while these families were sleeping to see – how can I put it – how we can take reaction to whatever order we’re given.”

In another recording, several people can be heard in a light-hearted, relaxed conversation punctuated with laughter. Cornell’s voice is recognizable in the recording, but it’s difficult to differentiate his from others.

Some of the statements follow:

“How can anybody want to follow a leader, stripped or not, who got punched in the mouth by a MS-13?”

“He’s a straight pussy.”

“In Smithfield, Durham and Asheboro they were running around saying they were kings when they were not real kings.”

“We’re dealing with a whole lot of fake kings that don’t want to come out and fight.”

Other recordings document Lugo approaching Cornell to buy a handgun. The informant testified that he paid Cornell $150 with funds provided by the FBI for the gun, and then turned it over to Detective Lowes.

Another set of recordings appears to document conversations involving a planned arson.

Some of the statements follow:

“If anything goes down we’re going to be looked at. So anything we do we got to do it real clean. Like you say, ‘In and out.’… Any one of these charges will automatically become a RICO charge.”

“Are you crazy? What the f***? You’re burning down your own house.”

“Do that. Yeah, let’s do that.”

Lugo testified, “We were talking about how to get back at Menace and Psych’s house, as well as Munchy’s. We were going to go ahead and fill these bottles with this fluid that was very flammable. Peaceful said, ‘Let’s do this in a way that it doesn’t come back on us.'”

Lugo admitted under direct examination by Assistant US Attorney Robert AJ Lang that he helped fill bottles with kerosene.

“Would you have thrown the bottles of kerosene at the house?” Lang asked.

“Never,” Lugo responded.

The informant said that as soon as he could get away without drawing noticed, he contacted the FBI to expose the plan.

CORRECTION: This blog post initially misidentified a former leader of the New York Latin Kings. The information has been corrected.

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