WHO IS JORGE CORNELL: Is The Latin Kings leader a champion of the people or a criminal racketeer?
For many of those who followed Jorge Cornell’s highly publicized battles with the Greensboro Police Department, seeing the Latin Kings leader being led away in handcuffs on the nightly news confirmed that the professions of peace and unity, the bold city council candidacy and ubiquitous activism had all been a sham.
The jury’s verdict in the federal prosecution for criminal racketeering — guilty on three counts for Cornell, guilty on one count each for two other defendants — spoke for itself. Sad perhaps, but Cornell could blame only himself. The legal saga of the Latin Kings was a distraction, at best, from worthier causes, and the defendants were deserving of not an ounce of respect.
Some with more sympathetic and nuanced views might frame the issue more tragically, viewing the Latin Kings leader as unable to make a clean break with his criminal past and seeing unimaginative law-enforcement leaders as unwilling to seize an opportunity to engage with street gangs to redirect their energy in more constructive directions. They would lament that the punishment — potentially 50 years, what might as well be a life sentence for the 36-year-old Cornell — was grossly out of proportion to the crime.
For still others, including local and federal law enforcement at one end of the spectrum and people in Greensboro who have worked closely with Cornell at the other, there is no moral ambiguity in the story. The sequence of events leads to a definitive conclusion — justice in one telling, perversion of justice according to the other.
“Acting on behalf of the Latin Kings, these defendants committed horrific acts of violence in their community, and they face substantial prison sentences as a result,” said Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, head of the US Justice Department’s criminal division in a prepared statement two days after the verdict. “Gangs wreak havoc on our streets and in our neighborhoods, and we are determined to continue bringing dangerous criminals like the Latin Kings to justice.”
Greensboro Police Department spokeswoman Susan Danielsen said officers involved with the gang enforcement unit could not comment on the verdicts because they might be called to testify in the future and any statement they would make could potentially affect the appeals process.
“The jury heard the facts presented by the government and the defense, and the verdicts speak to the depth and quality of the investigation and prosecution,” Danielsen said on behalf of the police department. “We believe the verdicts are appropriate, that the best interests of the public have been served, and that our communities are safer as a result.”
But many people who have worked with Cornell over the years — Greensboro leaders, pastors, activists and academics — say their view of Cornell, whom they consider a friend, is unchanged at the end of the trial. One of those, NC A&T University associate professor Brian Sims, calls Cornell a “hero,” a “model” and a “political prisoner.”
A jury of 12 convicted Cornell, his brother Russell Kilfoil and Ernesto Wilson — a defendant who was not a Latin King but rather was an “associate in fact” in the prosecutions terminology — of conspiracy to conduct or participate in a racketeering enterprise. The jury’s guilty verdict was based on finding beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendants or some members of the conspiracy committed a single act of conspiracy to murder, a single act of attempted murder, multiple acts of robbery, a single act of interference with commerce by threats of violence and multiple acts of bank fraud. Each defendant faces a potential sentence of 20 years in prison for racketeering.
The jury’s findings on specific criminal acts embraced a view held by both the prosecutors and the judge that by agreeing to participate in the enterprise, each of the guilty defendants are responsible for all of the crimes whether or not they participated.
Cornell also faces an additional 30 years based on convictions on two counts for a violent crime in aid of racketeering and carrying or using a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence. Both relate to a shooting that took place at Ashley Creek Apartment Homes in April 2008 that has been commonly referenced as the Maplewood shooting during the trial.
Marcelo Ysrael Perez, a defendant who pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with the government, testified that he committed the shooting in retaliation for a physical injury sustained by a Latin King named Anthony Vasquez following a confrontation with a MS-13 member named Guero. The victim of the shooting, who survived a blast of birdshot to the chest, was actually a construction worker from the Mexican state of Puebla and not a member of any gang.
Perez, who was also facing a life sentence for his role in the shooting, testified that Cornell summoned Latin Kings from Durham, ordered the shooting and traveled in a car to the crime scene.
Cornell did not testify in the trial, but he denied any involvement in the shooting in a phone interview from the Forsyth County Law Enforcement Detention Center last week.
“The truth of the matter is there was no role; I was not aware of that situation,” he said. “I honestly thought people were innocent of that situation until this trial, until word got to me that they pleaded guilty and they said they had some involvement.”
Cornell said he faults his court-appointed lawyer for failing to hire a private investigator at the outset of the case to piece together the defendant’s whereabouts on the day of the shooting. He said the defense team has located a woman who had been babysitting Cornell’s two daughters around the time of the shooting, and he expects his lawyer to file a motion for a new trial, which is a legal option for a short period of time after the verdict. Michael Patrick, Cornell’s lawyer, has declined to comment other than to say he expects to file an appeal.
“I was working two jobs; I was taking care of two kids,” Cornell recounted. “I’m lucky that we were able to get in contact with the lady that baby-sits the girls. If there’s a retrial — and there will be a retrial — I think I will be able to show I was working ’til 5 o’clock in High Point. It takes me half an hour to get back into Greensboro. I pick up the girls [from the babysitter]. Janice has a key to the house so she can go in. I would go over and stay with them until Alana [his ex-wife and the mother of his daughters] came home. There was no reason for me to be there [at Ashley Creek]. My second job was right down the block. Everything makes sense. Once Alana got home, I would go straight to work. I didn’t get off that job until 2:30 in the morning. It was no way I could have been at this place at this time planning anything. At the time this man was shot it was 11 o’clock, wasn’t it? How can I be there if I’m at work?” Luis Rosa, one of the Latin Kings defendants who pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with the government, testified that he and Ernesto Wilson committed a string of robberies during a month-long period in March and April 2007. Rosa and other witnesses testified that Wilson was not a member of the Latin Kings, and that he did not wear the organization’s colors of gold and black, use the Latin Kings hand sign or its customary salute of “amor de rey.”
Rosa and another witness, former Latin King Allan Jordan, testified that Wilson came from New York to Greensboro to make some money.
Curtis Holmes, Wilson’s court-appointed lawyer, told US District Court Judge James A. Beaty during a motion for dismissal that he wouldn’t have had much to say in response had his client been charged with armed robbery.
“If there’s any evidence that he committed these robberies,” Holmes said, “this work that he did was for his personal, mercenary benefit and not to advance the enterprise.”
The robberies of $2.50 Cleaners and Express Laundry in Greensboro, along with Musica Latina and el Tarahumara grocery in High Point, were brutal by any definition. Witnesses testified that a man who fit Wilson’s description struck a Korean business owner in the head with a handgun, broke out the window of a truck where the frightened wife of a Laotian businessman was trying to protect a bag of money, dragged a store employee at Musica Latina by her hair and terrorized customers at the grocery by brandishing a handgun and threatening to kill the owner.
Tina Chavis testified that she had been shopping at el Tarahumara when one of the robbers pointed a gun at her 14-year-old son.
“It was scary,” she said. “I thought I was going to die. I was just there for some tortillas.”
Allan Jordan, who admitted to participating in the robberies of all four businesses, testified that he began cooperating with the FBI in 2010, that he received an “immunity letter” from the government and that he has not been charged in any of the robberies.
The jury’s finding that the Latin Kings enterprise committed bank fraud rests on an admission by Latin Kings Richard Robinson and Charles Moore that they undertook a check-kiting scheme over a three-week period. Robinson testified that they gave Cornell a cut of $50 to $100 from the proceeds of checks drawn on accounts with insuf ficient funds. At the time, they had both been responsible for contributing their portion of the rent to Cornell for the house they shared on West Terrell Street in Greensboro. The government also presented evidence in the form of witness testimony that Russell Kilfoil participated in the check-kiting scheme.
The basis of Kilfoil’s conviction remains unclear overall.
Cooperating defendants testified that Kilfoil took part in planning retaliatory acts against former Latin Kings members, but also said he told them to exercise prudence and granted permission to abandon retaliatory missions when they were unable to locate the targets. During motions for dismissal, Assistant US Attorney Robert AJ Lang focused on testimony by dissident Latin King member Robert Vasquez that someone he identified as Kilfoil stepped out of a car and fired towards Vasquez’s house. If the jury was persuaded of the evidence in that incident, they could have used it as the basis for the single predicate act of attempted murder. Vasquez testified that he expects to receive immunity from any crimes he might have committed in exchange for his testimony.
Sherry Giles, an associate professor of justice and policy studies at Guilford College, like many of the witnesses called by the defense, followed news coverage but was not allowed to sit in the courtroom for the remainder of the trial because of a sequestration order. In spite of the guilty verdict, she found herself unconvinced by the evidence and found that her view of Cornell remained unchanged.
“I think I’m skeptical about some of the evidence,” she said. “I’m concerned that it seems a fair amount of the evidence was obtained from people I guess who were defendants who agreed to cooperate in exchange for some kind of immunity. It doesn’t feel like very reliable evidence. I don’t have full knowledge of the evidence, but what evidence I did see was not persuasive to me in support of the verdict.”
Notwithstanding a reference made by the Justice Department in a Nov. 23 press release to evidence that the Latin Kings used juveniles to distribute cocaine, the jury found that the defendants committed no acts of narcotics trafficking, arson or extortion.
More troubling perhaps than the jury’s finding that Cornell financially benefited from crimes committed by other Latin Kings was testimony by former members who agreed to cooperate with the government to the effect that Cornell ordered retaliatory acts of violence against rival gangs and former members of his own organization. The former members’ testimony was at direct odds with pronouncements by Cornell as early as June 2008 that he wanted to create a peace accord among street organizations.
In a recording secretly made by Jose Lugo, an FBI informant who was wearing a wire as a Latin Kings member, a voice that sounds like it belongs to Cornell can be heard making a number of statements that are inconsistent with the Latin Kings leader’s public image as a peacemaker.
“How can anybody want to follow a leader, stripped or not, who got punched in the mouth by a MS-13?” is one.
Another: “He’s a straight pussy.” And another: “We’re dealing with a lot of fake kings that don’t want to come out and fight.”
Cornell said from jail last week: “Still to this point I’m questioning that audio. I told [my lawyer] that I wanted an expert to go over this audio to see if it was tampered with in any way. There are conversations on there that I don’t remember this conversation taking place.”
He added, “I don’t ever recall saying anything like that.” The Rev. Nelson Johnson, a mentor and spiritual counselor to Cornell since 2008, said nothing that came out during the trial has caused him to question his friend’s sincerity.
“The picture that was painted of him as a ruthless, ultraauthoritarian gang leader is largely an invention by people who stood to benefit by painting that picture,” Johnson said. “I don’t think he used the same methods of prolonged discussion that I and others may have used. I think he was basically a young man trying to do good work.
“I knew that there were people who disagreed with the direction that he was pointing them towards to not buy or sell drugs, not to provoke fights, not to steal,” Johnson continued. “There were people who disagreed with that; they became rivalistic. There were conflicts between them. I think he handled it the best way he could.”
Giles said that, in contrast to the government’s portrayal of Cornell as a ruthless gang leader, she saw him mentoring and encouraging Latin Kings members to further their education in the course of a participatory action research project she set up with her students at Guilford College.
“The times my students met with Jorge and other Latin kings and queens we saw really how supportive the organization was for its members,” Giles said. “I said during my testimony that I saw Jorge mentor the Latin Kings, but I didn’t get to talk much about it. In one class a Latin queen was talking about how important Jorge’s mentorship was for her. She was estranged from her mother. She wanted to have a garage where she could operate an auto mechanics business. She actually started crying in the class because she was moved and appreciative of how supportive he was. He was listening to her and supporting her.”
The Latin Kings’ focus under Cornell’s leadership was also outward. North Carolina Latin Kings participation in demonstrations, prayer vigils and conferences to promote the cause of immigrant farmworkers seeking better working conditions from RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co., public-hous ing
residents resisting eviction, black and Latino officers protesting discriminatory treatment by the Greensboro Police Department and women working to end domestic violence have been amply documented.
The Latin Kings’ offer to provide security for an August 2010 march organized by the NC Dream Team to protest the deportation of undocumented immigrants was right in line with that pattern of outreach.
Viridiana Martinez from the NC Dream Team said King Hype, who is Samuel Velasquez, contacted her organization and wanted to know what they did. Velasquez was one of three defendants acquitted by the jury.
“We said, ‘We’re undocumented immigrants. We’re trying to expose ourselves so we can put a face on illegal immigrants and get support from regular folks,’” Martinez recalled. “We introduced ourselves. We were organizing this rally in Greensboro, and they offered to support us.”
Martinez said she was saddened to hear about the racketeering indictment against the Latin Kings, but that her organization’s work on deportation cases has been all-consuming and she hasn’t been able to pay close attention to the case. She recalled that when the Latin Kings offered support, she said to herself: “Damn, that’s pretty cool.”
“They were actually really protective of us,” Martinez said. “They would say, ‘Hold on, there’s cars coming.’ I said, ‘No, no, don’t worry; we’ve got a permit.’” As someone who works with undocumented people who are often arrested on frivolous charges, which then set in motion deportation proceedings with severe, lifechanging consequences, Martinez said the possibility that the justice system might not have worked perfectly in the case of the Latin Kings does not escape her.
Velasquez’s acquittal suggests that the jury likely found that the evidence was insufficient to support an allegation’ by the government that the Latin Kings were responsible for a drive-by shooting at the Smith Homes public housing community last year, considering that Velasquez was alleged to have driven the car from which the shots were fired.
Gloria Rankin, the resident council president at Smith Homes, has observed the Latin Kings for the past four years. She attended a community meeting at St. James Baptist Church in September 2008 when the Latin Kings and their black ministerial allies unveiled a gang peace agreement.
“I was hopeful that they were truthful in what they were saying,” Rankin said. “They had a lot of good stands. But sometimes people put on a show to get you to be supportive, but in the background they’re doing other things.”
The Latin Kings trial, if not necessarily the organization itself, has created negative repercussions in the Smith Homes community.
“I cannot specifically say that the Latin Kings have had anything to do with problems at Smith Homes,” Rankin said. “I know of one resident that was in fear of her life. She asked me to say a prayer for her because she was afraid that after she testified that she was going to have something done to her apartment.”
As resident council president, Rankin serves in a managerial capacity at the police community resource center at Smith Homes.
“I cannot rightly tell you that I remember any drive-by shooting in 2011 that had the Latin Kings name attached to it,” she said. “I really haven’t heard of the Latin Kings doing any shootings over here. I think with me working with the police department, I would have heard about it.”
Deena Hayes, a member of the Guilford County School Board, testified about appointing Cornell to the school safety committee, advising him on his city council campaign and serving on the advisory board of a non-profit staffing agency that Cornell hoped to establish. Hayes dismissed the notion that Cornell was secretly directing a criminal enterprise while publicly undertaking countless community initiatives.
“I frankly just do not believe that,” she said. “It’s an insult to all of us that have the competency, reasoning and logic and who know how to gauge our environment to suggest Jorge was leading a double life.”
For many who have worked with Cornell over the past four years, his example and his conviction indicts the system rather than the other way around.
“No, my view of Jorge Cornell is the same as it always has been,” said Brian Sims, an associate professor of psychology at NC A&T University who invited Cornell to speak to one of his classes and who sat
with Hayes on the advisory board of Community United Staffing. “He’s a hero and a model not only for people like myself, but for all people who care about issues of racism and police injustice and problems facing black and Latino people.
“For anyone interested in making themselves a better human being, he’s a model,” Sims continued. “Humble. Sincere. Extremely honest. Profoundly honest. I think that’s why people from all walks of life love him. You can see it in his daughters. You can see it in him in a basketball game. You could see it in him when he was running for city council. I can see that from walking with him and working with him.”
While friends and colleagues might valorize Cornell, Patrick’s characterization of his client in his closing argument drew a less flattering picture, albeit as part of a pragmatic legal strategy to cultivate doubt among the jurors rather than to directly challenge the government narrative.
“I’m not here to argue to you that my client’s an angel,” Patrick told the jurors. “He might not be someone who you would like to invite to dinner.”
Hayes said the movement for all the causes championed by Cornell is larger than the man himself, but the guilty verdict against him exacts a cost on Greensboro.
“I think it drives a bigger wedge between the police and courts on one hand and the community on the other,” Hayes said.
Sims said he doesn’t struggle to square the verdict with the man he knows. “I understand that’s how it works,” he said. “Cooperating witnesses had a motive to provide the testimony that they did. That’s factual. That can’t even be argued. They struck a deal: ‘You’re giving me this; I’m giving you this in return.’ “I think it’s a classic case of political prisoner,” Sims continued. “I think [Cornell’s] willingness and ability to tell the truth about what’s wrong in Greensboro is the reason he was singled out and made to be a criminal problem. I don’t know of anybody who knew him to be a criminal problem. And yet the state apparatus found a basis to strip him of his life and family, and slot him into a cage. The individual who’s trying to make things right gets criminalized. That’s happened in the past. He’s not the first political prisoner. But at the same time that’s really tragic and, honestly, hard to deal with.”
A community speak-out on Cornell’s conviction and alleged misconduct by Greensboro police takes place at Beloved Community Center, located at 417 Arlington St. in Greensboro, on Thursday at 7 p.m.