After a lull, GPD gang unit renews suppression efforts against Latin Kings

by Jordan Green

Richard Robinson, known as Focus in the North Carolina Latin Kings, was driving. Charles Moore, who goes by the moniker Toastie, was in the passenger seat. It was about 9:30 p.m. They were headed a couple blocks from their house in south Greensboro to a corner store to get cigarettes when an unmarked car parked in front of a vacant house pulled out behind them.

The police vehicle quickly activated its blue lights. Officer MA Kugel with the gang enforcement unit told Robinson and Moore that the stop was part of a gang investigation. Asked to explain further, Kugel said the officers were looking for drugs, according to Robinson and Moore. Robinson told the officers he did not consent to a search.

Robinson’s license had been revoked, his tag expired, and he was duly charged for those infractions. Robinson said he kept turning his head to keep an eye on Kugel because he feared the officer would try to plant drugs on him. A magistrate’s order for a second charge of resisting a public officer articulates from Kugel’s point of view that Robinson was “placing his hands on the roof of his vehicle, failing to remain still and continuing to turn his body towards the officer during a gang investigation.” The police took photographs of Moore’s tattoos, searched the car but found no contraband, removed the tag, took Robinson to jail and allowed Moore to walk home.

In three other stops that have taken place since late July, members of the Latin Kings variously allege that Greensboro police officers have searched their vehicles without warrant or consent, grabbed one’s genitals repeatedly, tore a bumper off a car in a fruitless search for drugs without compensating for damages and banged one’s car speakers in an aggressive and provocative manner.

“They thought this was their big bust,” said Jorge Cornell, the 33-year-old leader of the North Carolina Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation during an interview at the group’s collective house. “They thought they were going to find kilos or pounds or guns. They look at us like we’re part of the Taliban.”

Cornell, who suffered a heart attack at an activist conference in Detroit in June, holds no health insurance. He is currently collecting unemployment. Last week, he posted $250 bond to get Robinson out of jail. The expenditure wiped out his budget for rent for the month.

The Latin Kings had enjoyed an interval of relief from the gang enforcement unit through the late spring and early summer, but the sudden rash of stops and statements made by officers indicating a belief that the group is dealing drugs has caused alarm.

Greensboro police Capt. John Wolfe, who directs the gang enforcement unit, did not return calls for this story, but in a February memo to then-Chief Tim Bellamy indicated that the Latin Kings have nearly fallen off the unit’s radar.

“This gang no longer poses the threat to the community that it once did, but must be monitored to ensure that there is not a resurgence of the gang,” he wrote at the time, adding, “During the height of the Latin Kings investigation for a few months in 2008, the gang unit was expending approximately 30 percent of its investigative efforts toward the gang. For the year 2009 to date, that number has not been above 5 percent, and in fact is currently zero.”

Robinson said while he was in jail Kugel told him that Anthony Vasquez and a second former Latin King who were both expelled more than two years ago had beaten up a young woman, and he should be aware that the police know where Cornell lives.

Cornell said he interprets that kind of rhetoric as “just giving hints to people who aren’t part of our nation anymore to bring harm to our home.”

Robinson also said he was told by Kugel that the gang unit stopped openly armed members of the MS-13 street gang that were walking down the street where the Latin Kings live.

Cornell and his group regard the statement with extreme skepticism.

Another statement Robinson attributed to Kugel was that the police know who shot Cornell in August 2008, but because Cornell has refused to cooperate with the police investigation, no charges will be brought. Sgt. Ron Sizemore acknowledged to YES! Weekly in 2008 that days after the shooting he told a member of the Latin Kings that he wished Cornell had been killed.

“I made an offhand joke,” he said at the time. “Probably it was in bad taste. He was laughing. I was laughing.”

Officer AJ Blake, who was formerly assigned to the gang unit, faced a termination hearing on Aug. 13 for allegedly making untruthful statements in a press conference held more than a year ago. Among the statements at issue was, “Once when I was interviewing Cesar Herrera, a member of the Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation (ALKQN), I was interrupted by Officer Sizemore, who took over the interview. Officer Sizemore began shouting at Cesar and said that he wished that Jorge Cornell, the leader of the ALKQN, who had been recently shot, had been killed. It was not said in a joking manner.”

The Rev. Cardes Brown, an advocate for Blake, challenged the department’s reasoning.

“They substantiated it to the degree that they said he was joking,” Brown said. “Blake has tried to make it sound like it was serious. How do we know whether it was serious or not? The statement was made. Who’s going to be the person who determines the meaning of the statement?” Another statement by Blake that is alleged to be untruthful is one to the effect that Officer Christopher Schultheis shot and killed an unarmed black man. Schultheis faced no charges, Blake noted, while he was charged with two misdemeanor counts of assault on a female. (Blake was later acquitted by a jury of both charges.)

“That was in the paper,” Brown said. “He was unarmed. He was shot, admittedly. What was untruthful about the statement? Whether it was declared justifiable killing, then so be it, but it doesn’t change the fact that the young man was killed unarmed and shot whatever number of times. How do you say it was ‘an unforgivable statement’? It’s almost like they want the fact to be hidden.”

On Monday, interim Chief Dwight Crotts fired Blake, Brown said, adding that the officer plans to appeal the decision to City Manager Rashad Young.

Robinson said while he was in jail last week, Officer Kugel said that “if it wasn’t for Nelson Johnson and his 15 followers, we’d be gone by now because 280,000 people in Greensboro think we’re murderers and drug dealers.”

In all four of the recent stops, Latin Kings members say that police officers have mentioned “gang investigation” or “drug investigation.”

Georgia Nixon-Roney, a High Point defense lawyer who has previously represented

Cornell, said that police are supposed to have “reasonable articulable suspicion” before making investigative stops. If drugs, weapons or other contraband were found in a vehicle, that information should be included in an investigative report and prosecution summary. If contraband is not found, the information used by the police to justify the stop becomes a moot point. Nixon-Roney said the traffic stops might be unconstitutional, but it’s difficult to second-guess the police.

“I’m not anti-police,” she said. “Do it correctly.”

Wolfe said in his memo to the former chief that the gang unit had adopted “a top-down enforcement strategy to disrupt criminal gang organizations,” which was “employed by the gang unit while investigating the Latin Kings. Emphasis was placed on Jorge Cornell and his command structure in an effort to reduce the gang’s criminal behavior, impede his ability to recruit new members, and neutralize his gang’s negative effect on our community.”

An updated review by YES! Weekly found that members of the North Carolina Latin Kings have been charged with 46 felonies in the past five years, with a conviction rate of 10.9 percent. In comparison, data provided by the NC Administrative Office of Courts indicates that 65.4 percent of felony charges filed in the Guilford County court system over a 12-month period resulted in convictions.

Wolfe wrote: “The gang unit had been advised by the district attorney’s office that offenses involving gang members would be flagged so that charges would not be dismissed.”

Even so, the Guilford County District Attorney’s office has dismissed 85 cases against Latin Kings members, mostly for lack of evidence, over the past five years. A summary of dismissed charges prepared by the department in response by a set of questions by the Pulpit Forum is rife with error. It indicates that a charge against Cornell of assault on a law enforcement officer is pending; in fact, he was acquitted in a district court trial. It indicates that a charge against Cornell of abduction of a child is pending; in fact, it was dismissed more than a year ago. At least seven other cases referenced as “pending” by the department have actually been dismissed.

Local critics argue that the gang unit’s suppression strategy is counterproductive in that it risks forcing members into criminal activities by denying them legitimate avenues of survival.

“I’ve worked with gang groups,” said

the Rev. Clarence Shuford Jr., pastor at St. Philip AME Zion Church and president of the Pulpit Forum. “I worked with one group here in the city, LYFE — Love, Youth, Faith, Empowerment — where we’re trying to eliminate gangs. One of the concerns for young people is having jobs. So if one has a legitimate job, why would you force that person out of a legitimate job?” Cornell said a point of pride for the North Carolina Latin Kings is that they’ve taken advantage of the gang unit’s temporary reprieve to advance members’ education and employment standing.

“We’ve got eight brothers that are registered for college,” he said. “We got a brother that’s about to go to work as a chef because school’s about to be back in play. We got one brother in Charlotte who’s going to barber school. We’ve got a brother in Raleigh who’s about to enroll in technical school.”

Cornell said he is perplexed by officers’ statements during recent traffic stops indicating a belief that the Latin Kings are dealing drugs in North Carolina. If they really thought that was the case, he asks, why would they telegraph their suspicions and give them an opportunity to stop instead of sending informants to try to make controlled buys from members?

Cornell said he vouches that any legitimate member who has not been expelled is not dealing drugs.

“I think it’s important that you know that heroin is what killed my mother,” he said. “She caught HIV and passed away. I don’t like drugs because it destroyed my family. Other brothers have stories about how drugs destroyed their families. The Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation is a family. We’re a band of brothers and sisters. We look out for each other.”

Wolfe clearly sees the North Carolina Latin Kings in a more sinister light.

“The political doctrine of organized criminal gangs requires criminal involvement of new members, usually juveniles,” he wrote. “As inca for North Carolina’s Latin Kings, Jorge Cornell is the administrator of the gang’s political doctrine. Association with a criminal gang requires allegiance to the political doctrine, which guides the gang, thus an allegiance to criminal involvement. As the self-proclaimed leader of the LK’s, Jorge Cornell has proclaimed allegiance to criminal involvement for the purpose of strengthening the gang’s position within the gang subculture. He can no more deny his support of the political doctrine of his gang than a law enforcement officer can deny his support of the US Constitution.”

Rules governing lifestyle at the Latin King house in Greensboro where several young men live are rigorous, according to Cornell: No drug use. Members 21 and older may drink alcohol, but only in moderation. No onenight stands are allowed. Members take turns cooking and cleaning. Disputes are handled through house meetings, and usually end with the hugs exchanged by the two parties. The

first instance of getting caught with drugs results in a treatment program administered and designed by the Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation; the second in a choice between checking into an outside treatment program and expulsion.

“Everybody looks at me like the father figure,” Cornell said. “I look in your room to see that it’s clean. But they’re grown men, so they don’t need too much prodding.”

For fun, the Latin Kings often go to a Ham’s restaurant outside of Greensboro to sing karaoke. Cornell favors songs by the Temptations. He said they sometimes run into assistant district attorneys and cops who are similarly seeking a discrete place to unwind.

“They’re going to get so desperate,” Cornell said of the gang unit. “I truly believe they’re not done. The more we keep showing how righteous we are, the more desperate they get. My fear is that they might end up planting something on us, or they see me talking on my cell phone and they say it’s a gun, and they light me up.”