With Latin Kings leader facing long sentence, legal team and supporters start next chapter
For many, the North Carolina Latin Kings were already convicted when the US government unveiled its racketeering indictment last December, if not when they crashed into the public spotlight more than four years ago with a proposed gang truce and accusations of harassment leveled at the Greensboro Police Department.
Such was the climate of hostility that a Guilford County court clerk reacted to the mention of Jorge Cornell’s name by repeating the allegation as if it was established fact that the Latin Kings leader bragged that he had killed an MS-13 member by saying, “I’m not going to say when or where, but I got me a 13.” A television reporter, whose exposure to the trial had been limited to its first day and last, breathlessly asked fellow journalists awaiting the verdict: “Did you know there was a kid who was 13 years old who Jorge had selling drugs at a club?”
What the clerk didn’t know is that the audio recording purporting to capture Cornell bragging about killing a rival gang member would be suppressed because the judge found that its evidentiary value was outweighed by its potential to prejudice the jury. What the television reporter hadn’t known because of her two-week absence from the courtroom is that the allegations of drug trafficking had been thoroughly discredited through expert testimony of a federal drug enforcement agent and blatant contradictions by ex-gang members testifying for the government.
And yet, even if supporters had prepared for the worst, many of them were stunned by the verdict: Cornell, guilty on three racketeering counts leading to a possible life sentence; his brother, Russell Kilfoil, and Ernesto Wilson, a defendant only loosely affiliated with the Latin Kings, guilty on single counts of racketeering. The unwelcome news was leavened only by the acquittal of three other defendants, Randolph Kilfoil, Samuel Velasquez and Irvin Vasquez, along with dismissal of charges against a seventh defendant, Carlos Coleman.
“It was clear to me that the government had focused their presentation of evidence on Mr. Cornell all along, and he was the one probably most likely to be convicted,” said Michael Patrick, Cornell’s court-appointed lawyer. “I was hopeful as to the second and third counts that there was a significant chance of not guilty.”
When the verdict came down on Thanksgiving eve, white anarchist supporters holding a banner outside the federal building and then later waiting for Velasquez’s release from the Forsyth County Law Enforcement Detention Center openly wept and jeered at television news crews.
The centerpiece of the 12-member jury’s guilty verdicts was an April 2008 shooting at Ashley Creek Apartment Homes, a sprawling complex across Business 40 from the Koury Convention Center. The incident was referenced in court as “the Maplewood shooting,” after the street where the crime occurred.
Latin Kings member Marcelo Ysrael Perez testified that he believed he had found his target when the victim just stared at him from behind a sliding door instead of retreating into his apartment upon seeing Perez patrolling the grounds with a shotgun. In Perez’s cinematic description, “The dude flew. The impact of the shotgun, it tossed him back.”
Perez testified that he thought he had shot a MS-13 member named Guero, with whom Latin Kings members had clashed earlier in the day. In fact, the victim was Rojelio Lopez, a Mexican construction worker who was not a member of MS-13. Lopez, who has since relocated to Chicago, showed the jury welts on his chest from birdshot, where Perez had shot him.
Perez testified that Cornell ordered him to go to the Maplewood apartments to retaliate for an earlier incident in which Latin Kings member Anthony Vasquez had received a concussion from falling in a creek while being chased by MS-13 members. Perez also testified that Cornell traveled over to the apartment complex in a second car when the shooting took place.
Patrick argued in his opening statement that his client wasn’t present at the shooting and had nothing to do with the crime. On the basis of Perez’s testimony, the jury determined that Cornell is guilty of aiding and abetting an assault with dangerous weapon and carrying a firearm during and in rela tion to a violent crime in aid of racketeering, which respectively comprise counts 2 and 3 of the guilty verdicts. Those convictions each potentially add 19 years to Cornell’s sentence, in addition to the first count of conspiracy to conduct or participate in a racketeering enterprise.
Prosecutor Leshia Lee-Dixon declined to comment after the verdict was returned.
More than four years later, the shooting underlying Cornell’s potential life sentence appears to have left little lasting impact on Ashley Creek Apartment Homes. Terry Smith, who has served as property manager since January 2010, said he was not aware of the incident or the Latin Kings trial. The shooting he remembers was the one that took place on Feb. 5, 2011. Christopher Shaw Hewett, the grandson of the late NC Sen. Bob Shaw, was killed in that incident. (See story on page 10.)
Crime is down thanks to the efforts of tenants to report suspicious activity and to the good work of Greensboro police Officer Greg Bailey, who organized the Greensboro Apartment Watch Group for the western division, Smith said. Ashley Creek Apartment Homes has reported zero crime incidents in the past eight months.
“We’ve totally shut the gangs down here,” Smith said. “We stop it before it even starts. If we see any gang signs, we paint over them immediately.”
Three months after the Maplewood shooting, Cornell led a press conference, along with the Rev. Nelson Johnson, announcing that he was seeking to bring street organizations together to create a peace agreement.
“There is a disconnect,” said the Rev. Randall Keeney, the vicar at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church and a pastoral counselor to Cornell over the years. “My experience is that at least since 2008 Jorge was working to go in another direction with himself and the people he had in the Latin Kings. I saw him trying to help people get real jobs, put roofs over people’s heads and feed people. I do believe he was making a profound effort. I don’t know if it’s possible to make a clean turn from one way of life to another. I think he was doing his best. He had a lot of hurdles to get over to be where he really wanted to be.”
Cornell ran unsuccessfully for Greensboro City Council twice, convened a gang peace summit, constantly protested against police harassment and attempted to establish a non-profit staffing agency to employ ex-offenders and others with employment barriers from 2008 through 2011. During that period, the jury concluded, he was also leading a criminal racketeering enterprise.
In support of their guilty verdicts for conspiracy to conduct or participate in a racketeering enterprise, the jury found that Cornell, Kilfoil and Wilson planned or committed conspiracy to commit murder, attempted murder, robbery, interference with commerce by threats or violence and bank fraud.
During deliberation the jurors asked for clarification on whether the government’s burden of proof rested on establishing that each defendant participated in two racketeering acts or merely agreed to participate in an enterprise in which two racketeering acts were committed by other members. US District Court Judge James A. Beaty declined to clarify the matter for the jurors, but indicated to counsel while the jury was out of the courtroom that he took the more expansive view of the law.
Responding to a question from a defense lawyer following the verdict, Beaty said that the jury’s finding that all three defendants were guilty of the same underlying acts indicated that they must have determined that agreement to participate in the enterprise made them responsible for all acts committed as a part of the enterprise.
The government presented no evidence indicating that either Kilfoil or Wilson had anything to do with the Maplewood shooting. Former gang members who testified for the government consistently said that Wilson was not a Latin Kings member, and the evidence presented against him was limited to a string of violent robberies during a month-long period in early 2007. But the jury agreed with the government’s characterization of Wilson as an “associate in fact.” By all accounts, Wilson came down from New York “to make some money” and held no interest in the Latin Kings’ colors, ritual or structure.
The jury did not find any evidence to support charges of arson, extortion or drug trafficking against any of the defendants.
Patrick said there is some degree of confusion among defense lawyers as to the underlying acts the jurors checked off on their verdict sheet, and that two or three acts might have constituted conspiracy to commit murder and attempted murder. In addition to the Maplewood shooting, he said, one of a series of 2009 shootings at a house occupied by brothers Anthony Vasquez and Robert Vasquez, former Latin Kings members, might also have formed the basis for the jury’s finding.
Robert Vasquez testified that he was 90 percent certain that a person he saw shooting into his house one night was Russell Kilfoil, even though he could not see his face. As a result of the gunshots, Ashley Lazo, Vasquez’s girlfriend, was shot in the buttocks. After a second shooting into the Vasquez house in 2009, the occupants found the phrase “MS-13” spray-painted on the outside of the house.
The bank-fraud charges are based on testimony by former Latin Kings Richard Robinson and Charles Moore that they wrote bad checks to one another to defraud banks, and gave a cut of the proceeds to Cornell. Both were living with Cornell and paying rent to him at the time. Robinson and Moore both pleaded guilty to racketeering charges and agreed to cooperate with the government through their testimony.
The jurors apparently believed Robinson and Moore’s testimony about bank fraud while discounting their allegations about arson and extortion concerning a house that burned down in 2010 and from which the owner, the grandmother of a Latin Kings member, collected almost $100,000 in insurance proceeds. Helen Carlene Buscemi testified, in contradiction to Robinson and Moore, that Cornell had never contacted her about the insurance settlement or made any threat against her to try to get some of the money.
Members of the defendants’ committee have fed documents to Cornell’s lawyer, sat in court taking notes to hone a legal analysis of the case and tell their side of the story. They have organized press conferences, demonstrated outside the federal building, and one has testified.
As stated on the support committee website last week: “The defense coali tion believes the jurors were erroneous in their verdict, and will campaign to bring together facts and resources to aid those who bring their case before an appellate court. The coalition will work to ensure the justice system avoids another unjust and baseless conviction.
“It’s clear that the government brought a weak, frivolous and insubstantial case,” the statement concluded. “With time, help, rigor and expertise, it will become clear that each of the three remaining men is innocent. This case is not over.”
Patrick said he is confident there will be an appeal, adding that the defense lawyers have already begun to review various rulings on evidence and jury instructions in other street crime racketeering cases.
“There’s a very interesting legal split as to what degree of interstate commerce affects these kind of street gang cases,” Patrick said. “The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeal says it needs to be a substantial effect on interstate commerce. Several other circuits say there only needs to be minimal effect. The judge in this case came down on the side of minimal.”
He said the Fourth Circuit Court, which has jurisdiction in North Carolina, has yet to address the question, adding that “the Supreme Court is the only place where that split can be resolved.”
Keeney said that, while he doesn’t pretend to know all the facts, he hopes Cornell “can still fulfill some of his hopes and dreams over his life,” but worries that the time his friend faces in prison will curb that potential. He prays for Cornell and his two daughters, Janice and Abigail.
“They’re struggling with this,” he said. “The person that was painted in the courtroom is not the same person as they know as their daddy.”
Chad Nance contributed reporting for this story.