Latin King codefendant considers plea deal as trial nears
Acodefendant in the Latin Kings criminal racketeering case and rival to power of one-time state leader Jorge Cornell is considering a plea deal, his lawyer has indicated.
Jason Paul Yates, also known as King Squirrel, moved from Raleigh to Greensboro as a member of the North Carolina Latin Kings in early 2008.
Yates appeared at Cornell’s side that year with a group of Greensboro pastors during a press conference when the Latin Kings leader announced that he was seeking to bring street organizations together in a peace agreement.
Yates is originally from the Chicago area, where the Latin Kings organization was founded in the 1940s. Cornell came to North Carolina from Brooklyn, NY, where he had been a member of the Latin Kings under the leadership of Antonio Fernandez, or King Tone, a social justice-minded leader who attempted to put the organization on a path to reform.
Cornell, also known as King Jay, stayed at Yates’ apartment on Boulevard Street in southwest Greensboro during much of 2008 and was shot there by an unknown assailant shortly after announcing the peace initiative.
Cornell currently awaits sentencing on three racketeering convictions from November 2012. Two other defendants, Russell Kilfoil and Ernesto Wilson, were each convicted of a single count of racketeering. A federal jury in Winston- Salem found three other defendants not guilty, and Judge James A. Beaty Jr. dismissed charges against a seventh defendant. Six other defendants pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate before the first trial.
Yates’ case was severed from the others in October 2012 after the defendant’s court-appointed lawyer told Judge Beaty that she had failed to adequately prepare for the initial trial, but Yates is being treated as a conspirator with the other defendants in the alleged criminal racketeering enterprise.
Yates appeared in court on Monday with his hands cuffed and shackled. The 32-year-old defendant wore a white T-shirt and his hair was cut short on top with a wide tail in the back. FBI Agent Doug Rentz attended the hearing as a member of the prosecution team, along with Guilford County Sheriff’s Office deputies John Lowes and Nicholas Combs, who are cross-sworn members of the FBI Safe Streets Task Force.
Joseph M. Wilson Jr., the Durham lawyer appointed by the court to represent Yates, told Judge Beaty at the conclusion of a pre-trial hearing in federal court in Winston-Salem on Monday that his client has a plea meeting scheduled with the US Attorney’s Office on April 22 “to see if the matter can be resolved.”
Judge Beaty declined to rule in Yates’ favor on several motions to suppress evidence and narrow the scope of the indictment, strengthening the government’s hand to extract a plea deal from the defendant. Beaty did caution the government against pursuing unsupportable arguments.
Wilson asked Beaty to exclude overt acts allegedly committed by Yates after October 2008, contending that by that time the defendant had withdrawn as a conspirator in the alleged racketeering enterprise. Yates’ motion notes that the defendant was part of a group that unsuccessfully attempted to vote Cornell out as leader of the North Carolina Latin Kings and that as a result Yates was stripped of his membership. The judge denied the motion.
“You understand you have the burden of proving withdrawal, don’t you?” he queried.
Yates was charged with multiple counts of robbery with a dangerous weapon and second-degree kidnapping for an incident in Morrisville in December 2008, more than a month after he was expelled from the Latin Kings by Cornell, according to warrants submitted as exhibits by the defendant’s lawyer. The warrants allege that Yates stole $400 and 18 grams of marijuana from a man and restraining him and three others by taking their cell phones and threatening them with a handgun. Irvin Vasquez, also known as King Dice, was also charged with robbery in the incident. Vasquez was acquitted of racketeering, along with two other Latin King defendants, in November 2012.
The judge challenged both the defense and the prosecution on their theories of Yates’ participation in the alleged racketeering enterprise.
“Mr. Cornell couldn’t kick him out of the group, could he?” the judge asked.
Wilson responded that the evidence indicated that Cornell went to a “higher authority” in Chicago to gain authorization to expel Yates. Beaty gave Wilson an assist, adding information to bolster his argument.
“He found out Yates wasn’t even a part of the Latin Kings in Illinois,” the judge said. “He was part of an outlier group.”
The judge noted a letter allegedly sent from Yates to Cornell in June 2011 warning that the federal government was preparing to indict the Latin Kings, raising questions about whether it could be considered evidence that Yates remained part of a racketeering enterprise.
Wilson told the judge that Yates was jailed for 485 days following his conviction for a string of crimes in Wake County in 2009.
“There were plenty of codefendants that were in jail but did not withdraw from the enterprise,” Beaty retorted.
Robert AJ Lang, the lead attorney for the government, argued that Yates remained part of the enterprise after 2008.
“We would contend that there’s an overarching group that he remained part of,” he said, adding that the June 2011 letter and a 2009 statement by Yates that he considered himself “part of the Latin Kings forever” provided evidence of ongoing involvement. Lang also said that Latin Kings manifestos
and hats bearing the organization’s colors of black and gold were found in Yates’ car after the 2008 break with Cornell’s group.
“The enterprise is national and international,” Lang said. “The Cornell group is a subset of that enterprise.” He added that the Latin Kings operates as a seamless organization from the national to local level.
“You don’t really believe that, do you?” Beaty asked. Lang acknowledged that he didn’t believe the statement, considering it was clear his statement wouldn’t sway the judge’s opinion.
“I think the government needs to develop a little better its argument as to whether acts after October 2008 should be included in the case,” Beaty said.
Wilson also asked the court to order the government to exclude evidence of predicate acts involving extortion, arson, narcotics trafficking and theft from interstate shipment from Yates’ trial on the basis that the jury found all defendants not guilty of those elements in the first racketeering trial. Lang argued in response that the government had not had an opportunity to present all evidence because of Yates’ absence from the first trial. The prosecutor committed that the government would not present evidence of theft from interstate shipment.
Beaty asked Lang how the government could possibly present evidence of extortion against Yates when the allegations surrounding that predicate act related to a supposed conspiracy to burn down a house to extort money from an insurance payout from a member’s grandmother. Lang responded that the charge related to an incident in which Cornell and codefendant Russell Kilfoil had allegedly extorted money from a mobile phone store employee. The government had not presented evidence on that alleged incident in the first trial.
“We did not present evidence of Hello Wireless,” Lang responded, “but we contend that Yates was part of the conspiracy at that time.”
Beaty asked if the store employee hadn’t recanted and admitted that she initially blamed the Latin Kings to cover her own wrongdoing. Lang responded that the prosecution team felt they had a strong enough case to convict Cornell and Kilfoil without introducing evidence of extortion in the Hello Wireless episode.
The judge also questioned why the government wanted to proceed with evidence of drug trafficking. Lang responded that Yates knew the other codefendants at the time, and that the government was developing evidence to support the charge.
“It seems like this trial has been going on for awhile,” Beaty said. “You’re just now developing evidence?”