Gang leader’s social-justice vision belied by criminal associations
The tone was courteous, confident and professional when Jorge Cornell, alias King Jay, reputed inca of the Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation for North Carolina, received a reporter’s call. He said he had just been at CiCi’s Pizza on West Market Street and would arrive at the newspaper office for an interview shortly.
He rolled up in a late-model black Mercedes with his entourage. He first introduced two associates by their gang names – Peaceful and Sykes – and then his girlfriend, almost as an afterthought. She wore large sunglasses and a T-shirt depicting the 1972 blaxploitation movie Superfly.
The 31-year-old Cornell, a Puerto Rican from Brooklyn who relocated to Greensboro in 2001, recently thrust himself into the public eye by calling for a peace agreement among local gang leaders.
With the Rev. Nelson Johnson at his side during a press conference in the sanctuary of Faith Community Church in Greensboro on June 30, Cornell faced a bank of television cameras and proclaimed: “My goal is to bring peace to the streets, black, brown, come together as one. I’m asking for all Bloods, Crips, MS-13, Sur Trece, everybody out there that represents something to put your weapons down and let’s come to a table, so we can talk peace.”
Later, Fox 8 WGHP reporter Caron Myers asked Cornell what the two teardrops tattooed under his left eye represented. He responded, “I lost my mother two years ago.”
It was a command performance. At the end, Johnson bestowed a measured blessing on Cornell’s initiative. “I see this as a challenge and an opportunity riding on the wings of hope,” the pastor said. “There are problems. They are real. We’re not in denial about what’s around us. But when this brother came and said, ‘I want to call together all who would gather and sit around a table and to talk a new language of peace and possibility,’ I don’t think that people of goodwill should take that lightly and – certainly those of us who are following in the way of the one whose vocation is redemption and salvation – should allow anything in the past to condemn the possibilities that are ours for the future.”
Cornell has thrust himself on a city unnerved by increasingly frequent reports of gang violence, and watching uneasily as a growing number of Latinos take up residence in apartment complexes and fill low-wage jobs in landscaping and construction. As a Puerto Rican born on US soil, Cornell enjoys the privileges of citizenship, and he has capitalized on that status to speak on behalf of weaker members of the Latino community. In addition to putting himself forward as an ambassador of unity between working-class Latinos and blacks, he has stepped into a vacuum in local Latino leadership by styling himself as a champion and protector of undocumented immigrants vulnerable to racism, harassment and ultimately deportation.
Cornell launched his effort to court the media – in tandem with a provocative and defiant stance against the police – less than a week after the federal government announced the indictments of 26 members across North Carolina from the feared Salvadoran gang MS-13. The Latin Kings have taken their own hits, including mass arrests and the eventual imprisonment of New York Inca Antonio Fernandez, alias King Tone, in the 1990s. Did Cornell’s overture, then, represent a redirection of gang activities towards peaceful and constructive purposes or was it a play by the Latin Kings for primacy in the Greensboro gang universe?
“We think there are probably thirty or forty people who are probably [Latin King] gang members,” said Capt. John Wolfe, who oversees the Greensboro Police Department’s gang unit. “We don’t categorize them as a violent gang at this point because there’s no evidence to support that. We have had some encounters with them where they have been very defiant of law enforcement.”
Cornell was not exactly making amends for past misdeeds at the press conference. He said that since 2005, when he founded the North Carolina Latin Kings with authorization from the “motherland” in Chicago, he has instructed members to eschew criminality.
“You can’t find no documentation that there was a king that was brought up for selling drugs,” he told me. “It’s a very strong policy I have against selling drugs. That’s one of the things that I’m proud of my brothers and sisters, you know. It’s a very strong policy that I have against selling drugs, and against robbing and stealing and killing…. You can tell them not to do something, but at the end of the day, if an individual wants to do something and they go out and do it, we’ll have to deal with it the way we have to deal with it. If we get rid of him, we get rid of him…. You will no longer be a king.”
(In fact, Marcelo Ysrael Perez, who has been validated as a Latin Kings member by the Greensboro Police Department, is wanted for attempted first-degree murder.)
Banishment was the enforcement mechanism Cornell proposed at the press conference, should the other gang leaders in Greensboro heed the call to meet and conclude an agreement.
“You always have one that wants to break up this beautiful thing because not everybody wants peace,” he said. “So what I’m asking these leaders to do is, if you got one that’s going to start trouble with the other, don’t let those two get physical. And if it does, don’t let it cause a war. Let’s bring it to the attention of those leaders, and let those leaders deal with their own instead of us dealing with their own. And if that means kicking them out, that’s what it means.”
Cornell has been as close as anyone to the contradiction between criminality and social justice that runs through the Latin Kings’ history. He sat in a federal courtroom when his mentor, King Tone, pled guilty to charges stemming from an incident in which he served as a lookout while a drug sale took place nearby.
“I came into the nation at such a beautiful moment,” Cornell said. “The things that King Tone had done with the nation in New York was unbelievable. All my knowledge is passed down from Tone. I had pleasures plenty of times of sitting with that brother and speaking with that brother and doing things with that brother.”
With a tone of reverence, Cornell recited a litany of lessons learned from Fernandez’s example.
“Not hurting each other,” he said. “Not hurting blacks. Try to keep the peace. Keeping the brothers and us, keeping our minds pure. Not doing drugs. Stop the killing. These are things that this brother preached.”
Cornell’s promise to expel any member caught selling drugs, stealing or killing contains a loophole. He said he would wait to see how the court process plays out, and even then, because of the possibility of a miscarriage of justice, only carry out an expulsion if a member admitted guilt directly to him.
“I can’t say he was guilty for the simple fact that New York State had a three-strikes law,” Cornell said of Fernandez. “If he went to trial and was found guilty then he would have went to jail for life. To sit here and say, was he really guilty? I don’t know. I can’t say that. I could say what he said. He said he was close to an area where something was going on that he didn’t even know about, but he had no choice but to take a plea deal because, you know, sometimes these lawyers they’ll just get you for guilty by association.”
Cornell said that Fernandez, who is currently serving a federal prison sentence, remains the inca of the New York State Latin Kings, contradicting news accounts at the time of the conviction indicating that Fernandez had relinquished control.
“I believe when he comes home the nation’s going to shine,” Cornell said. “It’s going to be a great day in Latino history, not just for Latin Kings, but for all Latinos. I’m going to be looking for him to visit this state.”
Count Capt. Wolfe as skeptical towards Cornell’s initiative to bring about peace among the city’s gangs.
“When one of them comes to court, they all come to court,” he said. “You could have fifteen or twenty of them. They’re really defiant of rules of conduct. My question is: If you’re all about peace and harmony, why all the defiance?”
One incident sticks out in Wolfe’s mind: On May 20, 2006, Cornell came to the jail, got arrested for causing a disturbance, and then watched as three associates demonstrated their lack of cooperation with a police officer during booking.
“Oh no, that’s a lie,” Cornell said, when asked about the incident. “I don’t ever remember that one. Who purposely gets arrested? Come on. Kidding me? Do me a favor: Send my regards to this Captain Wolfe. He’s trying very hard to knock us down, but it can’t happen. This is more discrimination.”
As Sgt. Mike Richey, commander of criminal intelligence, described it, “He came in the back door of the magistrate’s office and caused a scene there and got arrested. The other three Latin Kings surrounded a couple of Greensboro police officers and attempted to assault them. It was in order to prove themselves in order to gain full admittance as members.”
Police arrest records identify the three as Randolph Leif Kilfoil and Robert Vasquez Jr., both charged with felony robberies with firearms; and Daniel Vasquez, charged with a misdemeanor for carrying concealed weapons. Robert Vasquez Jr. is wearing a shirt that says, “Snitches get stitches.” Kilfoil would plead guilty to conspiracy to commit robbery in September 2006, Assistant District Attorney Howard Neumann said. Robert Vasquez Jr. is currently serving an active sentence at Polk Correctional Institution following a conviction in October 2006 for assault with a deadly weapon with intent to inflict serious injury.
Court records show that Cornell was sentenced to five days in jail for direct criminal contempt before Magistrate LF Williamson. She wrote that Cornell approached the magistrate’s public window, banged on it with his fist, and cursed through the glass after being told to step aside and wait.
Surveillance video shot on May 20 shows Randolph Kilfoil being booked and then moving out of the line of the camera’s vision. Seconds later, the three defendants come back into view, bounding around the room and throwing out their arms as two Greensboro police officers stalk them, while a handcuffed Cornell stands back and watches. At one point, the defendants appear to huddle around the police officers. After more than two minutes, the police officers move in and subdue the three defendants after Cornell is placed in a cell.
The Greensboro police have been unable to pin any felonies on Cornell, but the inca has been in and out of court on misdemeanors.
The Guilford County District Attorney dropped 10 separate charges of felony conspiracy charges against Cornell after investigators were unable to substantiate claims by former Hello Wireless employee Alma Esparza that she handed tens of thousands of dollars of company cash over to Cornell and another Latin King member. The inca has a scheduled appearance in Guilford County Court later this month for misdemeanor charges of disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and assaulting an officer stemming from an incident last December. On July 2 he turned himself in for a warrant charging him with aiding and abetting an operators license violation.
“Every time a brother steps up and he wants to do the right thing, you know, this is what the police and the government do,” Cornell said. “They kick dirt all over you and try to shut you down, so your voice cannot be heard, but as kings we have to be strong, strong-minded, to carry ourselves with respect so we don’t fall. They can say what they want about me. They can try to do things to me. It’s not going to stop me. My voice will be heard. There’s no shutting this movement down. It’s growing every day and it’s a beautiful thing.”
To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at firstname.lastname@example.org.