Jorge Cornell called for gang peace…
The percussive sounds of an activist drum corps echoed off the brick walls of the Hampton Homes housing project in Greensboro the Saturday after Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. A parade of people roughly 175 strong made its way north along Ashe Street towards downtown.
Jorge Cornell, who leads the North Carolina Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation as King Jay, headed the march with members of his organization, his girlfriend and a handful of pastors. Several Latin Kings, along with a complement of young black men acted as marshals, flanking the centerline of the street to confine the march to its allotted single lane. As they moved up Elm Street and then Greene Street, the procession took on a jubilant feel, and Samuel Velasquez, known as King Hype, and other Latin Kings threw their organization’s sign in the air. Members chanted, “Kings’ love, black and gold, queens’ love, black and gold.”
When they reached Governmental Plaza, Cornell took position halfway up a set of steps opposite a covered stage. Cornell kept himself surrounded on all sides as members fanned out along the length of the steps until their leader gestured for them to pull in. Cornell occasionally dispatched a runner with a handwritten note to the Rev. Nelson Johnson, his spiritual advisor and supporter in pursuing peace among black and Latino street organizations. Eric Ginsburg, a Guilford College student who had written an article favorable to the Latin Kings, greeted Cornell with an embrace. Derick Smith, a political science professor at NC A&T University, shook his hand.
Cornell took his turn among the parade of speakers, but the most fiery words were spoken by Johnson, a religious and political leader who had organized an ill-fated march almost three decades past that saw Klansmen and Nazis open fire, killing five of his revolutionary comrades in a Greensboro housing project as police tactical units waited for their orders nearby.
“I just want to mention briefly, and focus on the harassment, the provocation, the abuse growing out of the gang squad of the Greensboro Police Department,” Johnson said. “The gang squad’s actions have created a dangerous situation. I’m not just here blowing smoke today. A situation, that if it is not solved and solved in a hurry, it holds the possibility of people getting killed, some of whom you see at this place today.”
There could be little doubt but that Cornell, the heavyset 32-year-old Puerto Rican transplant from New York City who established the Latin Kings in North Carolina in 2005 with the blessing of national leadership in Chicago, was the man whose life was considered endangered.
The Rev. Johnson contends that numerous charges taken out against the Latin Kings by the gang unit, often dropped, with inordinately high bond amounts, are having the effect of bleeding the members financially, causing members to lose jobs and get evicted from apartments, isolating them from the community and setting them up as targets of violence. His colleague, the Rev. Gregory Headen, who also leads a predominantly African-American congregation on the city’s east side, worries that police harassment could potentially have the absurd effect of pushing the organization into criminal activities for survival.
The gang unit makes no apology for its handling of the Latin Kings.
“We’re just doing the best we can,” said Sgt. Ron Sizemore, head of the unit, in a recent interview. “We’re not out to get anyone. We’re not doing anything sinister.”
Johnson had sat beside Cornell at the pastor’s activist community center on June 30 as the Latin Kings leader issued a call for the Bloods, Crips, MS-13 and other street organizations to unify and conclude a peace agreement. That seems to have been the moment when Cornell’s troubles really crystallized, the pastor has observed.
The latest source of outrage had been a raid by plain-clothed members of the gang unit on a Latin Kings touch football game the previous Saturday in Center City Park. Cornell had been arrested and charged with felony abduction of children and misdemeanor contributing to the delinquency of a juvenile, and three other members of his organization — including a 20-year-old man who had served a prison sentence for assault with a deadly weapons with intent to inflict serious injury — were also arrested and charged with felonies.
What is generally agreed upon about the alleged crime is that a 15-year-old girl had been with the young men the previous night during a trick-or-treat outing and the girl had been confronted by her older sister, a former member of the organization, who wanted her to come home. The boyfriend of the girl, 18-year-old Allan Jordan, blocked the sister, and the girl willing departed with the young men. The next day, she was with them at the park for the touch football game when the gang unit swooped in.
The four Latin Kings were out on bond for the rally at Governmental Plaza, and it was decided that another game of touch football would be an appropriate gesture against police oppression. The Latin Kings would take on Guilford College.
After the rally, about 14 adult Latin Kings, give or take four or five teenagers, and six children who also wore the organization’s colors, cut through February 1 Place. They stopped to visit Russell Kilfoil, known as King Peaceful, in front of the Empire Room on South Elm Street. Peaceful, who had not attended the rally, took a break from a kitchen shift at a nearby restaurant to meet them. Then they marched in formation up South Elm Street, chanting and throwing signs. When they reached Market Street, Cornell halted the procession.
“Hold on,” he said. “We don’t want to get hit with some jaywalking.”
After they arrived at Center City Park, Cornell and another Latin King got in a car and went off to get white bread, ham and Food Lion sodas. While they were gone, the two sides practiced. The Rev. Johnson strolled through and tossed the ball with the guys a couple times. Later, the Latin Kings and the college students gathered under a pergola to share the meal.
Cornell’s eldest daughter tugged at his sleeve, and pleaded to him that some other children she had befriended were also hungry.
Cornell reproved her: “We can’t feed everybody. We do as much as we can.”
From an outsider’s perspective, Cornell and his organization demonstrate a discipline that can seem somewhat intimidating, especially combined with the younger members’ exuberant flashing of signs and chanting, which comes across as mocking and defiant towards authority. Cornell’s stare can seem icy and impenetrable, at the very least guarded and wary. But when the Latin King leader draws a newcomer into his orbit, the opposite impression is left. He comes across as warm, thoughtful and sincere.
The game commenced. The Latin Kings led Guilford College, and then the Latin Kings suggested that whoever made the next touchdown would win the game. Guilford possessed the ball, but the Latin Kings made an interception and scored the touchdown. The Latin Kings prevailed, 11-9.
A homeless man who passes his days in the park, and who gave his name only as Max, had been watching. He wore a Pittsburgh Steelers sweatshirt with the Latin Kings colors, but he said he had never heard of the organization.
“I haven’t seen anything here that says these people are bad,” he said. “There hasn’t been one thing that has gone wrong. If there was, this is my park and I would say so.”
He elaborated: “A guy went into the bathroom and peed on the wall. And I said, ‘If this was your wall, you could do that, but that’s my wall.’ If someone’s going to do something that hurts the rest of us I’ll tell them because it’s my responsibility.”
He struggled with the notion that many members of this group have been charged by the Greensboro Police Department, and their case files stamped “validated gang.”
“This is not a traditional gang,” he said.
Attitudes towards gangs among the electorate and the political establishment in Greensboro hardened in 2007. Police began noting suspected gang activity in incident reports. Keith Holliday, the outgoing mayor, called on the General Assembly to pass tough, new anti-gang legislation. The Greensboro Police Department created a gang enforcement unit in October 2007, at the request of city council, although the council was unwilling to allocate new funding to pay for it. The department assigned 12 members to the unit, and submitted a request the next year to ramp up to 20 members.
“I looked at the data on so-called gang activity,” consultant Carroll Buracker told the city council in July, “and there is no pattern that I would recommend that many people.”
The creation of the gang unit appears to be based more on political considerations that demonstrated public safety needs.
During their months-long review of the department, Buracker and his colleagues noted that the budget request included no quantitative indicators, only a note contending that “commercial robberies are unusually high… there are more reported incidents of youth violence than ever before, and our schools have been negatively impacted by the activities related to youth gangs.” In fact, the Buracker report found, the city’s violent crime rate fell from 2006 to 2007. Based on about 14,000 calls for service a year, the report recommended that the department establish a five-member domestic abuse team. Those findings and recommendations elicited little public discussion among council members.
The two leading candidates for governor this year each pledged to get tough on gangs. Democrat Bev Perdue promised to “attack gangs as organized crime operators,” and Republican Pat McCrory told broadcaster Jim Longworth in September: “We need to give severe penalties, especially to gangs that recruit eleven- and twelve- and thirteen-year-old kids out of our schools to sell drugs on the corners of the streets right here in Winston-Salem.”
Concern about gangs has also fused with unease about immigration from Latin America, and growing intolerance towards those who enter the country illegally, creating a sense that law-abiding and native-born North Carolinians are under siege. The killing of two men eating at a Mexican restaurant on High Point Road in early December 2007 in a crime in which an alleged member of MS-13 was later indicted quickened the Greensboro City Council’s pulse.
“I understand that one of many groups coming in from El Salvador to California — I don’t know what kind of PR we’re doing for gangs from California because these gangs have been known not only to walk into restaurants and shoot people but go from individual to individual but also political activity that they have been involved in,” newly-elected Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw said on Dec. 11, 2007.
It was 10 days earlier that Jorge Cornell would later say he had experienced his first run-in with the gang unit. Cornell is as native born as the sons and daughters of generations of Piedmont textile workers, but legal residency has been among the factors used by the authorities to set inordinately high bond for members of the Latin Kings. Among the extraordinary factors cited for Samuel Velasquez’s bond level was that he was in the country illegally, but in a subsequent plea transcript he wrote that he was a US citizen, and his conspicuous presence at the Nov. 8 march suggested that he harbors no fear of deportation.
The warrant for the Dec. 1, 2007 incident accuses Cornell of striking police Officer RC Finch with a closed fist with his left arm while the officer placed him under arrest for disorderly conduct.
“We went to pick up one of our queen sisters for a party we were having,” Cornell recalled. “The police stopped us. They told her to step back from the vehicle, and they came to the car with guns drawn.” Cornell said he complied with an order to lie on the ground, but stiffened his neck when an officer tried to slam his head into the ground. With his daughter standing nearby, he conceded that he did call the officer “an F-ing pig.” After he was handcuffed and lying on the ground, Cornell said, one or more officers swung at him.
Finch said he told Cornell to get out of the car because his language was provoking aggression from the passengers and he was arresting him for disorderly conduct. Finch said Cornell was not cooperative and he had to “escort” the Latin King leader to the ground, but that did not include striking him as he forced him into a prone position and placed handcuffs on him.
A trial had been set for July, but it has now been pushed back to early December.
Georgia Nixon, a High Point lawyer who represents Cornell, said she has not had a chance to meet with Officer Finch, and has been unable to corroborate her client’s account.
“I do know that every time one of them has even the simplest of matters like failure to carry your driver’s license, there’s always a lot of commotion and talk among the officers,” she said, adding: “These charges are very serious, and they should be taken out only when an officer sincerely feels he has been assaulted or threatened. I have had no chance to verify them. I have been dealing with Jorge for some time, and he seems very sincere in trying to keep his peace quest going. I find it not in his character to do that.”
“That night was the first night I met the gang unit,” Cornell said. “We go back to the department, and I’m talking to AJ Blake. I took a comfortability to him; he’s Honduran. I said, ‘This is crazy. I didn’t assault no government official.’ He asked me what hand did I write with? I told him my left. So then you see that the warrant specifically says that I used my left arm to assault this officer.”
Sgt. Sizemore said he had not heard about Blake extracting information from Cornell about his dexterity before the warrant surfaced, but he added that the Latin Kings leader “has no credibility in my mind.”
Two months later, Cornell and Kilfoil were each hit with 11 counts of felony conspiracy based on statements by a cell phone store employee caught embezzling that she had turned over cash to the two men under threat of violence.
All 11 charges were eventually dropped.
“It certainly seems to me that they charge first and do an investigation later,” Nixon said of the gang unit. “I can tell you that it’s rare when this happens. I have lots of clients who tell me ‘Yes, I did this,’ or ‘No, I didn’t .’ When you start to put the pieces together, it may go to trial or they may decide to plead down the charges. With Jorge’s cases, I barely got involved, and the DA looked at it and said, ‘Based on what the officer turned in, we have to dismiss this.’”
Sizemore said all the felony charges against Latin Kings members have been taken out as a result of specific complaints.
“That was a call that went out to the patrol officer,” he said. “We met at the substation. We interviewed this girl. She gave specific information. She gave specific information. She was Russell Kilfoil’s girlfriend. At that point, if you get information like that you’re duty-bound to act…. The DA did contact us and say they were dropping charges. I don’t agree with that.”
Assistant District Attorney Howard Neumann recalled: “She told the police a couple different stories. One of the stories was that she was doing this for the Latin Kings, and they had threatened to harm her family if she didn’t continue to do so. We were able to find where she had literally made thousands of dollars of cash purchases herself at a jewelry store in Greensboro, and at Dillards at Four Seasons. We were able to substantiate that she was spending the cash. All of these were public places that were under video surveillance by businesses.”
In early May, Velasquez turned himself in at the Guilford County magistrate’s office on charges of first-degree attempted murder that were filed by Officer Roman Watkins of the gang unit. The charge was dismissed by Assistant District Attorney Christopher Parrish on the basis that “there is insufficient evidence to warrant prosecution for the following reason: defendant was in car after the event,” but not before Velasquez spent five and a half months in jail awaiting trial.
He had been unable to make bail, and because he was sitting in jail he was unable to work. He couldn’t earn money to pay a lawyer, so he had to go with a court-appointed public defender. On Sept. 3, he signed an Alford plea of guilty to two separate charges of possession of a stolen firearm and carrying a concealed gun. The .380 Bersa semiautomatic pistol was later returned to its owner, Oliver Franklin of Liberty.
When Cornell made his call for peace among street organizations in late June, the initiative was already clouded by controversy and confusion created by a misdemeanor charge against him. Cornell said members of his organization had told him that the gang unit was looking for him with a warrant for his arrest on charges of communicating a threat to a police officer. Cornell sought Johnson’s council, and then the Latin Kings leader went to magistrate’s office to surrender, but he said there was no warrant.
Days after the press conference, a warrant for misdemeanor aiding and abetting an operator’s license violation materialized. It was dismissed by the district attorney the following month.
Then, in early July, Kilfoil was allegedly assaulted by a private security officer at the Depot in downtown Greensboro.
“I was there with a couple of friends one night, and I got attacked for smoking a cigarette in an area I was not supposed to,” Kilfoil says in a DVD produced by the Pulpit Forum, a consortium of African-American pastors of which Johnson is a member. “It basically started with the officer telling me to remove from the area and smoke by the curb. I did so. Then I started walking towards the buses when they started to come in. Out of nowhere from behind an officer threw me up against the wall, hit me a couple times….”
Kilfoil filed a complaint with the Greensboro Human Relations Department. He and Cornell have said that Human Relations Director Anthony Wade reviewed a surveillance videotape and confirmed the assault. Wade, in turn, said that he hopes an official investigation will be completed by the end of the year, when its findings will be turned over to the complainant. While refusing to comment on the investigation, he confessed, “I like Jorge a lot.”
The Rev. Johnson has met with Wade, Mayor Yvonne Johnson, City Manager Mitchell Johnson and police Chief Tim Bellamy on the Latin Kings’ behalf, but the scope of the Human Relations Department’s inquiry has been limited to the Depot incident. Both Mayor Johnson and the pastors have said a meeting is being arranged with the gang unit itself, but a date has not been set.
The Pulpit Forum has characterized the actions of the gang unit as “provocative,” and argued that the high bond amounts placed on Latin King members for charges that are typically dismissed has exacted a “financial burden” that is “devastating.”
“My perspective is just simply that I very much appreciate the effort on behalf of the Pulpit Forum and Latin Kings to seek peace and renounce violence of any kind,” City Manager Johnson said, “but at the same time if there are complaints that the police need to follow up on, then they need to follow up on them.
If there is a situation where the gang unit is overstepping their responsibilities, then I’m sure the police chief will review it,” he added. “I’ve talked to the chief quite a bit about what was his assessment of the concerns about the gang unit and he seemed to be very comfortable with it, and I was comfortable with his explanation.”
On Aug. 11, Cornell dismissed members of his organization after an outing to the movies, and went to pick up his daughters. Then Cornell, his girlfriend and the girls went to visit Jason Paul Yates, known as King Squirrel, at the Cedar West apartment complex in southwest Greensboro. The others went inside and Cornell walked over to talk to some young men sitting outside.
That’s when shots rang out from the dark outside the illuminated outside corridors at the apartment complex. One bullet hit Cornell in the leg, and another tore through his shoulder and exited his chest. A police press release subsequently described Cornell’s status as critical condition, and he said a doctor told him he might die.
“This is what really disturbs me,” Cornell said. “That night in the hospital when I was shot, the gang unit was there. I asked Officer Blake — the apartment complex was under surveillance — I asked why this particular Sunday they were nowhere to be found. Officer Blake said that they were in the office doing paperwork. It did not register with me then. Later, I’m thinking about what I could have done differently, and I’m going through the whole situation.”
Cornell expressed forgiveness to whoever might have shot him from his hospital bed through the Rev. Johnson.
“Jorge has said that he’s not willing to prosecute anyone,” Sizemore said. “They’ve changed their story from ‘it was a black man that jumped out of the woods’ to ‘it was a Hispanic.’ I don’t think it’s going anywhere. I heard that they thought it was Surenos from southern Mexico that were mad because Jorge was making statements about peace between black and brown.”
Days after Cornell was shot the home of 34-year-old Cara Martha Williams, a friend of the Latin Kings and mother of one of its members, was invaded by an unidentified man. As King Hova tells it, he was there with her at the time, and he tried to get the man to go outside with him, but the intruder sucker-punched him and laid him out. Then several Latin King members returned, and chased the man out the back door.
They ended up retaliating against the wrong person. Yates is accused of striking 52-year-old Louis Young in the head with a beer bottle while the man was in bed in his house. Young received a written apology from Cornell.
While in questioning, Yates said that Sizemore told him “he would have liked nothing better than to have woken up in the morning, read the newspaper and found that King Jay had been killed.” Sizemore denies making the statement.
Sizemore acknowledged that he said something like what Yates’ alleged, but says the statement was taken out of context.
“I made an off-hand joke,” Sizemore said. “Probably it was in bad taste. He was laughing. I was laughing.”
Later, Sizemore said that Cornell accused him of being the person who shot him.
“That’s absurd,” he said.
After the Oct. 31 trick-or-treat incident, Magistrate JB Antonelli wrote on a document justifying bond that the family of the 15-year-old girl was “terrified” of Cornell, boyfriend Allan Jordan and Robert Vasquez “because they are Latin Kings.”
The characterization has infuriated the Pulpit Forum pastors.
Sizemore said it was based on statements from the girl’s older sister and her mother.
“These are juvenile statutes,” Sizemore said. “Elements of the crime are that there was a 15-year-old girl whose parent and sister wanted her to come home. Those charged verbally and physically got in the way of her being returned to her family.” Sizemore added that Cornell “was directing the other gang members to block them from getting to her.”
To the contrary, the Pulpit Forum asserts, Cornell left the scene as soon as the dispute began between the two sisters because he didn’t want to involve himself in a family matter.
“What we are very clear on,” the Rev. Johnson said, “is that no abduction occurred.”
Sizemore said one of his Spanish-speaking officers contacted the mother and asked her if she would consent to be interviewed for this story, but the woman said she didn’t want to talk because she was afraid. Johnson declined to provide contact information for the mother because he said he wanted to protect the identity of the 15-year-old girl, whose name is a matter of public record.
The police detained the 15-year-old girl when they arrested Cornell and his cohorts at Center City Park on Nov. 1 during the first touch football game, and took her home.
“Her mother was very grateful to us, and expressed it,” Sizemore said.
A statement by Rev. Johnson to reporters at a Nov. 6 press conference paints a different picture.
“I’ve just spent time with the mother of the 15-year-old girl,” he said. “And she has, in fact, given permission to the young man who they say abducted her to continue in relationship with her. And she’s not familiar with the other players, but as for the person who was charged with abduction, the parents say the relationship is fine at this time, and knew of it preceding this.”
Johnson has become a spiritual advisor to Cara Martha Williams, whose son is a Latin Kings member. Johnson told the assembly at Governmental Plaza on Nov. 8 that Williams had wept in the parking lot of his church the previous night.
“This mother, with a teenage son and two small children, was visited by the gang squad and she was frightened so much that she was literally afraid to go back to her own house and take her children back there,” Johnson said. “And I do not say these things lightly, but I must publicly declare that this is wrong, it is evil, and it needs to be opposed by all of us who are gathered here. This mother was told that her house was a gang house, and therefore it was a target. And this means that it is a dangerous house for you to live in.”
Two days later, Officer Roman Watkins of the gang unit arrested Williams on charges of abduction of children and contributing to the delinquency of a juvenile, based on the allegation that a separate 15-year-old girl had been at her house and Williams had caused the girl to miss school, associate with gang members and not return home.” Watkins also charged Williams with two counts of resisting a public officer for allegedly lying about the girl’s whereabouts to Watkins on Nov. 1, and then for pulling away from him when he arrested her a week later.
Williams’ 15-year-old son and 20-year-old daughter appeared before District Court Judge Margaret Sharpe on Nov. 10, as the jailed mother was patched in by video-teleconference for her hearing. A magistrate had set her bond at $25,000.
Sharpe appeared confused, asking Williams’ children if they were the ones that had been abducted. The son, who acknowledged his membership in the Latin Kings, told the judge the charges were false.
“I do not know that young lady,” Williams told the judge after the prosecutor stated the name of the 15-year-old girl who was allegedly abducted. “I have three children at home, and I have never been in any kind of trouble.”
“Are you Latin?” the judge asked. “You don’t look Latin.”
Williams explained that her two children are half-Hispanic.
“I’m not going to lower your bond,” the judge said, “because the more I learn the more complicated it gets.”
The abduction of children charges against Williams and her Latin Kings friends would seem to add up to an assertion that the organization is disrupting families, keeping children out of school, teaching them to defy parental authority and indoctrinating them in a program of criminality.
That’s not the way Williams sees it.
“The nation is a family to me, and has helped me out a lot,” she says in the DVD produced by the Pulpit Forum. “Jay has been a father figure to my oldest son, and has made him continue to go to school. When we first met, my son was in trouble. He was going through court every week. He was doing something different. He was locked up in juvie for doing stupid stuff. As far as I’m concerned, Jay helped my son get out of trouble. And he taught him, you respect your parents, respect adults, you go to school, you get an education. Because if you have an education, can’t nobody take nothing away from you.
“And this is a family-oriented situation,” she continued. “The nation comes to my home. We eat. We just talk. And that’s all it is. There’s no violence at my house. There’s no talk about doing things, like robbing and stealing and all that. I’ve never heard any of that. And I’ve known these young men and women for four years. And that’s the way it is. It’s all about, to me, peace.”
To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at email@example.com.