ITEMS FROM ACROSS THE TRIAD AND BEYOND
Clashing pictures of Latin Kings in first day of trial
The US government and defense attorneys for seven North Carolina Latin Kings members presented clashing characterizations of the organization, as a federal criminal racketeering trial got underway in Winston-Salem on Monday.
Assistant US Attorney Robert AJ Lang pledged to members of the jury that the government would prove that each of the defendants entered into a conspiracy by agreeing that they would individually commit criminal acts such as arson, robbery, kidnapping, bank fraud and the sales of narcotics. He told the jury that former members would talk about an organization “that was ruled by violence and fear” by leader Jorge Cornell, AKA King Jay; about beatings, or “physicals,” meted out for violation of rules; about an enterprise with a “robust symbology” of manifestoes, hand signs, salutes, clothing and rituals”; and about acts of retaliation against rivals and former members alike.
“The Latin Kings’ colors are gold and black,” the prosecutor concluded. “Often gold by day and black by night.”
Michael Patrick, Cornell’s public defender, told the jury there was no question his client was the leader of the North Carolina Latin Kings. But he said they would hear evidence from defense witnesses at odds with the picture created by the government. He told them they would hear from a school board member who appointed Cornell to the school safety committee who would testify that the defendant gave names of middleschool aged wannabe Latin Kings to school officials so they could deter the youngsters; from various community members who were helping Cornell set up a temporary labor agency to provide jobs to ex-felons; from college professors who invited the defendant to speak to their classes; and from pastors who would testify that he helped broker a peace pact between street gangs.
“The government will paint a picture that the Latin Kings in Greensboro were a very active street gang,” Patrick said. “The evidence will show that the Latin Kings were never a successful gang. The government wants to say they were big-time drug dealers. In fact, they rarely had any resources. They were hardly scraping by. They weren’t very organized.”
The North Carolina Latin Kings formed in 2005, and have maintained a public and controversial profile in Greensboro since 2008. Members have repeatedly accused the Greensboro Police Department gang unit of harassment, and Cornell further thrust himself into the spotlight by running twice for city council.
Cornell and his two brothers, Russell Kilfoil and Randolph Kilfoil, with their lawyers along the front row. The four other defendants, Samuel Velazquez, Irvin Vasquez, Carlos Coleman and Ernesto Wilson, sat along a side wall. A tattoo reading “Code of silence” could be seen on the back of Cornell’s neck. During the testimony of a former Latin King who cooperated with the government, Cornell exchanged glances with a young woman in the gallery. When Judge James A. Beaty Jr. called a break, a bailiff questioned the young woman on whether she was trying to communicate with the defendants.
About 25 supporters packed the gallery.
Several, including support committee member Saralee Gallien; the Rev. Nelson Johnson; and Eric Ginsburg, a reporter who managed Cornell’s first city council campaign before joining the staff of YES! Weekly, had to leave after opening statements because they have been identified as potential witnesses for Cornell. (This reporter was also listed as a potential witness, but expressed objections to Patrick about the prospect, and was dropped after it was determined that his testimony would not be useful.)
The defense attorneys asked members of the jury to keep an open mind as they reviewed the government’s evidence, noting that it would be three or four weeks into the six-week trial before they had an opportunity to put defense witnesses on the stand.
Lang preempted inevitable efforts by the defense attorneys to undermine the credibility of former members taking the stand to testify for the government, including three brothers — Anthony, Robert and Daniel Vasquez — by laying out their liabilities.
“They didn’t like the structure,” the prosecutor said. “They didn’t like the rules. They didn’t like the beatings. Most of them are not going to be put up for citizen of the year. They come with some baggage. They were paid, many of them, to provide information and in some cases had their sentences reduced for cooperating with law enforcement. Some witnesses, you will hear from, were paid by the FBI.”
Patrick said the Vasquezes were part of faction that attempted to vote Cornell out of leadership in 2008, and left the organization after the unsuccessful coup, later committing crimes in Wake County.
The government called its first witnesses after opening statements, beginning with a Korean-American drycleaner owner who wiped away tears as he testified that he bled from his head after being struck by the butt of pistol in the commission of a robbery, and ending with Anthony Vasquez, who testified that he was recruited to join the North Carolina Latin Kings at the age of 13 and starting fighting with rival gang members and dealing drugs in compliance with Cornell’s orders.
Wilson’s lawyer, Curtis Scott Holmes, said his client had been charged as part of the racketeering case on the basis of five robberies during a one-month period in 2007. In each case, he said, no witness interviewed during the initial investigations ever identified Wilson as a suspect. In the case of 250 Cleaners, Holmes said that aside from a surveillance video, the only evidence the government would present would be statements from cooperating witnesses, who had something to gain from their testimony.
John Cho described through an interpreter how he had been preparing to close his store on High Point Road at about 7 p.m. when a young man wearing a black doo-rag and a white sleeveless shirt came in and ask him to change a $20. The young man left with his change, and soon afterwards three young men wearing hooded sweatshirts and carrying guns returned and demanded money from the cash register. Cho’s testimony described and the video showed how the robbers pointed guns repeatedly hit him before carrying out two cash registers and the contents of the business owner’s wallet.
Aaron McKinney, who operated a flea market next door to the drycleaner, testified that he wrote down the license plate number of a Navy blue Jetta that he saw leaving the scene. Guilford County Sheriff’s Deputy David K. Jones later tracked the vehicle to a home on Pilot Ridge Court in the Adams Farm area of Greensboro. Jones testified he found a black doo-rag and a white T-shirt in the car, and that Luis Rosa admitted to being the driver. Luis Alberto Rosa is one of 14 original defendants but has pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with the government.
Anthony Vasquez, who took the stand wearing a flannel shirt, blue jeans and a long goatee, testified that Cornell had lived with him at a house on Keeler Street in 2007 and 2008. Wilson, a Cuban immigrant who came to North Carolina to make money, also stayed at the house from time to time. Vasquez testified that the Latin Kings robbed 250 Cleaners, that the crime was planned by Wilson and Rosa, along with Steaphan Acencio-Vasquez, another defendant who has agreed to cooperate with the government, and a fourth person named Allen Jordan. Vasquez said Cornell provided two .380-caliber handguns for the robbery and partook in the spoils when the four returned to the house on Keeler Street with the cash.
Vasquez said that during his initiation period — known as “observation” — Cornell ordered him to fight members of the Sureños and MS-13 gangs, but he gave inconsistent testimony. He first said he might have fought with rival gangs three times and later saying it was “too many to count.”
Under direct examination by Leshia Lee-Dixon, a prosecutor with the US Justice Department’s organized crime and gang section in Washington, DC, Vasquez also testified that he sold powder cocaine provided by Cornell at Westgate Apartments and at the Paraiso club at the ages of 13 and 14, and then turned over the proceeds to Cornell.
Vasquez testified that during his probation period Cornell provided him with lessons in the form of typewritten pages, called “manifestoes,” explaining the rules of the organization and the five points of the Latin Kings belief system: love, honor, obedience, sacrifice and righteousness. He learned the colors — black and gold — and the tattoos — a five-point crown and a lion. He demonstrated two hand signs for the jury.
Vasquez said members were required to attend weekly meetings and contribute dues of $5 per week, used for bonding members out of jail, buying food and purchasing firearms. Failure to pay dues resulted in beatings from the neck down, Vasquez testified.
Providing further ammunition for the government’s claim that the North Carolina Latin Kings were a criminal enterprise organized and controlled by Cornell, Vasquez also testified that Wilson, Acencio-Vasquez and Jordan robbed an Express Laundry, splitting up the proceeds with Cornell and himself. He said he was part of a group that broke into a trailer parked in front of Roses Department Store on Farmington Drive, and unloaded lanterns, picture frames and other household goods that were sold by Cornell at a flea market.
For more extensive and up to date coverage of the Latin Kings trial, visit yesweeklyblog.blogspot.com.