Defendants prepare to call witnesses in Latin King racketeering case

by Jordan Green

A Guilford County Sheriff’s Office detective and a federal agent have been among those who have taken the stand as prosecutors prepare to call their final witnesses in the federal racketeering case against six members of the North Carolina Latin Kings organization.

Detective John Lowes, a member of the FBI Safe Streets Task Force who has been investigating the Latin Kings since 2008, laid the blame for crimes committed by dozens of members at the feet of Jorge Cornell, the inca or state leader of the organization.

“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,” Lowes said. “And he would participate in the crimes.”

Leshia Lee-Dixon, a federal prosecutor with the organized crime and gang section at the US Justice Department, asked Lowes how the organization’s hierarchy was maintained.

“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.”

Michael Patrick, Cornell’s courtappointed lawyer, asked Lowes during cross-examination if there was a rule in the Latin Kings against selling drugs.

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

The government has alleged in its indictment that “members of the Latin Kings sold controlled substances to financially benefit themselves and the enterprise as a whole.”

US District Court Judge James A. Beaty Jr. sustained an objection on the basis of relevancy by the prosecution to a question by Patrick about a proclamation by Cornell in 2008 that he was pursuing a peace agreement among street organizations. But the judge allowed Lowes to answer whether he knew that the Latin Kings started out as an organization dedicated to helping people.

“Primarily,” the task force officer responded. “That’s how they represent themselves.”

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

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

High Point police Detective Dennis Szentmariay, a member of the Safe Streets Task Force, testified that he recovered no firearms during the execution of a search warrant on the Latin Kings’ house in the Glenwood neighborhood of Greensboro before the federal racketeering indictment was unsealed in December 2011. Another task force member, FBI Special Agent Doug Rentz, testified that he found 25 shotgun shells among the belongings of Russell Kilfoil, another defendant, but no weapons.

Rentz’s testimony also focused on a letter from Jason Yates to Cornell. The two Latin Kings parted ways in 2008 and became bitter rivals for control of the North Carolina Latin Kings. Yates is among seven members who pleaded not guilty, but he will be tried separately because his courtappointed lawyer said she was unprepared to go to trial with the other defendants.

Rentz testified that the US Attorney’s Office contacted Yates in June 2011 and advised him that the government was considering an indictment against the Latin Kings. Rentz added that Yates did not respond to a request from the government for cooperation.

Rentz then testified about tracking down Tracy Weyman, a Latin Kings member who had been living in the Glenwood house at the time of the federal raid. Rentz found Weyman at the Thomasville Inn in September 2012.

“She handed me a letter,” Rentz testified. “She said, ‘This might be of interest.’” Rentz added that the letter was from Yates to Cornell.

The following day the government took reluctant testimony from Weyman, who said on the stand that she cleaned the house after the raid. US Attorney Robert AJ Lang showed her the letter from Yates to Cornell and asked her if it was among the documents she took. Weyman responded, “Yes, it was in the common area.”

When asked if she gave the letter to Rentz, Weyman said she didn’t remember.

Later, after the judge dismissed court for the day, Weyman said in an interview outside the federal building that the Yates letter had not been in her possession when she met Rentz.

“Anything that did not belong to me I gave to a friend to hold” after the raid, she said, declining to identify the recipient on the record. Weyman said that, in fact, she gave Rentz a letter from a North Carolina prison inmate who is not a Latin King but rather someone who was looking for a pen pal.

Weyman said Rentz’s stated reason for the visit was to obtain a handwriting sample from her so that he could exclude her as a suspect in an investigation of a person who was sending death threats to cooperating witnesses.

Richard Robinson, Charles Moore and other cooperating witnesses have testified that Cornell ordered assaults against former Latin Kings and against individuals with whom members encountered trouble. Robinson and Moore, who joined the organization from 2009 forward, said Cornell benefited from illegal activities, such as check-kiting and the sale of pirate DVDs. Other former Latin Kings have testified that Cornell took a cut of the proceeds from a series of robberies they committed during a month-long period in 2007.

Latin Kings who have struck plea deals with the government have testified that during the period of 2009 through the indictment, there were rarely more than five active members in the Greensboro chapter, that the group was barely scraping by and that Cornell often had to pressure other members to pay their share of rent.

If indeed Jorge Cornell was shot — and he has been shot — and someone says he’s there to kill Jorge Cornell, we think it merits an investigation. We think the Greensboro Police Department owes and explanation to the public.’

Rev. Nelson Johnson

Moore and Robinson both testified that Cornell directed a group of Latin Kings to shoot into an apartment in the Smith Homes public housing community where a member of the Bloods was staying, in retaliation for a beating. Moore testified that he had been staying in the apartment in August

2011 with a Blood member named Terrell and Terrell’s girlfriend, and selling marijuana with them. One day, when the couple had gone out, Moore said he was tortured by a group of unidentified people who ransacked the apartment looking for the marijuana stash. Moore said Terrell didn’t believe his story, and called over a group of Bloods to beat him up.

Moore and Robinson testified that the Latin Kings recruited a Crip named Cole with whom they were friendly to attempt to lure Terrell out of the apartment so they could assault him. That gambit failed, and both testified that under Cornell’s direction, defendant Samuel Velasquez drove past the apartment, and Cole stood up in the open sunroof of the car and shot into the apartment.

The jury has watched surveillance videotape from Guilford County Court and heard testimony from Robinson and Moore about how they beat former member Anthony Vasquez to the ground and then assaulted him with punches and kicks.

Moore testified under cross-examination that Cornell had given no order to assault Vasquez. But Robinson indicated that the Latin Kings leader was pleased with the outcome.

“Cornell was happy that it happened,” Robinson testified. “He said, ‘It’s like Christmas finally came.’” Moore and Robinson contradicted each other in testimony about an alleged effort to extort money from a Latin King member’s family following an arson committed as part of an insurance fraud scheme.

The government has also presented testimony from Jose Lugo, a former Latin King who wore a wire for the Safe Streets Task Force for two years.

Lugo received about $14,000 to cover expenses and as compensation for his services. The government played audio recordings made by Lugo, much of which sounded incomprehensible or muffled to spectators in the gallery. The government provided transcripts to members of the jury, but a courtroom clerk said Judge Beaty would not release them publicly because they were evidence and not public documents.

Lugo described in his testimony had he and other members had filled bottles with kerosene in preparation for a planned firebombing of a house where former Latin Kings lived.

Brian Aus, Russell Kilfoil’s court-appointed lawyer, asked Lowes if any of the recordings made by Lugo indicated that the informant had instructed the defendants on how to make firebombs.

“There is mention on the audiotape of that,” Lowes testified. Lowes said after Lugo alerted the task force to the plan, the Greensboro Police Department stepped up patrols in the area, and the plan was ultimately called off because the area was “too hot.”

The trial has drawn criticism from a group of Greensboro residents, including the Rev. Nelson Johnson, who called a press conference in 2008 for Cornell to publicize what he said was an effort to promote a peace agreement between street groups. Cornell was shot about two months after announcing the effort in a crime that remains unsolved.

Johnson criticized the government for pursuing racketeering charges against the Latin Kings after the Justice Department declined to investigate a civil rights complaint filed against the Greensboro Police Department. The pastor said he believes the police department lobbied the government to pursue the racketeering charges.

Joined by about 20 others, including pastors and community organizers, Johnson expressed concern about a written narrative by a Greensboro police officer describing a 2010 encounter with a Latin King with Chicago connections who indicated he had been sent to kill Cornell. The narrative surfaced in an e- mail obtained by members of a defense support committee through a public records request, and was part of a motion filed by Patrick in federal court.

An Officer Trimnal said in the narrative that he encountered the Latin King member, identified as Gorge Cardenas, on a roadside in Greensboro in November 2010. Trimnal said in the narrative that Cardenas told him that Cornell “was about to be ‘taken out’” and “that this ‘sh*t comes from high up/within.’” Trimnal said he had no charges on which to arrest Cardenas, and helped him move his vehicle out of the roadway.

“What investigation was generated from this?” Johnson asked. “If indeed Jorge Cornell was shot — and he has been shot — and someone says he’s there to kill Jorge Cornell, we think it merits an investigation. We think the Greensboro Police Department owes and explanation to the public.”

Public Information Officer Susan Danielsen said the police department is prohibited, under a gag order by the US Attorney’s Office, from addressing any queries having to do with the Latin Kings.

Lee-Dixon said in court last week that the government expects to call its final witness on Tuesday.

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