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Reasonable Doubt and the Cold Case


Reasonable Doubt: A 43-year-old Seaside cold case comes to a conflicting end

DA dismisses charges, but man’s name not cleared


Read the original version of this story here.

Herald Staff Writer

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Seaside murder of Christian Lopes was for 40 years a case buried in the annals of the city’s police department even as it lived on in the hearts and minds of his family.

It was the kind of killing some residents say police chose to overlook in those days — the death of a young black male during a brawl in the projects.

But the 1969 stabbing of Lopes and the prosecution 40 years later of a man who had been at the scene is more than that. It’s a case that raises troubling questions about police procedures decades ago, the practicalities of investigating long-cold cases and the ethics of pushing for a conviction when dealing with fading memories and shades of ambiguity.

It’s also a story of stubborn heroics and clashing versions of history that will likely never be reconciled.

Last week, the oldest cold case prosecuted in Monterey County, perhaps in the state, came grinding to a halt when the District Attorney’s Office announced it was dropping murder charges after another suspect came forward and “implicated himself” in the death of Lopes.

Sixty-one-year-old James Terry Mason was home in Dallas when he got the news. He would no longer be tried for murder.

After three years of anxiety, deteriorating health and mounting interstate travel bills, Mason’s family was elated it was over.

Then the rest of it sunk in. Why weren’t police arresting the new suspect? Why wasn’t Mason’s name cleared on the news? Where was the exoneration he had waited for?

“When do I get my name back?” Mason asked his attorneys.

It wasn’t a question they could answer.

    James Mason, left, talks with attorney Michael Herro in a Salinas courtroom on Dec. 17, 2010. Charges have been dropped against Mason in a cold case murder from 1969. (HERALD FILE)

James Mason, left, talks with attorney Michael Herro in a Salinas courtroom on Dec. 17, 2010. Charges have been dropped against Mason in a cold case murder from 1969. (HERALD FILE)

A foreign experience

From Mason’s point of view, his ordeal began anew with a knock on the door in October 2010. He was at home in Texas when two Seaside police officers asked to come in and chat.

The Army vet was surprised, though he’d spoken to one of them earlier on the phone.

“It was, ‘Thank you for serving our country, oh we think you’re a murderer. We’ve got an eyewitness,'” Mason says.

By that night, he was sitting in a small van, his wrists and ankles in chains, riding in the dark beside shackled strangers headed for jails in other states.

It was a completely foreign experience, even for a man who had lived around the world and witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“I’ve never been arrested. I don’t know the law because I don’t break the law,” he says. “I don’t know what lawyers do outside of TV.”

Mason was born in Texas but grew up in Seaside and Monterey. His father owned a Seaside liquor store and, at one point, a business delivering chickens to Peninsula restaurants.

Mason says he worked in his father’s store in an area around Broadway Avenue and Noche Buena Street known as The Pit.

For Seaside’s teen boys, it was a time of “big old Afros,” afternoons spent shooting pool, chasing the opposite sex and, of course, getting into fights, he says.

“The gang that hung there was called the Pit Boys,” he says. “But I wasn’t in no gang. I worked in the store. I always had a job and was chasing the girls.”

Seaside was a long-faded memory the night the police came calling in 2010.

Mason left the city when he was drafted into the Army after high school.

“The Army sent me to Berlin, New York and Seattle. I was in Berlin behind the Iron Curtain in the ’70s, during the time of those terrorist groups at the Olympics. I was working for the government over there,” he says. “The wall went down and I was sitting pretty. They kept me over in Europe for 25 years.”

He married, divorced, and then his ex ran off with his 8-year-old son. He put all his effort into searching for the boy, he says, but gave up trying when the money ran out.

By 1998, he settled back in Texas, where he eventually met a new girl and bought a house with her near Dallas. Always enterprising like his late father, he says, he has held a number of jobs, including working on and off for a Texas state representative.

A few years back, he beat prostate cancer.

Friends have visited from all over the world, he says — Spain, Germany, South Africa.

All in all, it wasn’t a bad life.

But then he was crossing the Southwest in the night, shackled and facing murder charges.

“Chained up, no socks, in short pants and a T-shirt,” he says.

He suffers from hypertension and diabetes and says he tried several times to convince the officers he needed medication as the van stopped to pick up more suspects along the way.

“They said I went into shock. I woke up in a hospital in Arizona,” he says. “The guards got me chained up to the bed.”

Eventually, he was delivered in poor health to Monterey County Jail, where, he says, he tried to keep to himself. Some of the inmates, however, wanted to make a hero out of him, saying things like, “Man, you beat the system for 40 years!”

Mason rebuffed the supposed compliments. He didn’t see it that way at all.

In late 2007, Nicholas Borges, now 31, was a young Seaside patrol cop. Back then he wasn’t a detective or a homicide investigator. He wasn’t even part of the recently formed cold case squad that was digging into unsolved Peninsula murders.

But he liked to remind himself he was a human being like anyone else, a fact that made it easy for him to connect with suspects.

“I treat them with respect and sometimes they open up,” he says.

After one “minor arrest,” he says, he chatted up the perp, a Seaside old-timer who had been around a few blocks. The subject of old murders came up, as did the name of Chris Lopes.

Borges had never heard of the guy.

“I remember all the old veterans of the department discussing cold cases and I didn’t recall that one being one of them,” he says. “The case basically didn’t exist.”

He went to the investigations unit, where he looked over a shelf full of thick files on unsolved murders. He didn’t see the Lopes case there. None of the department’s 20-year veterans even recalled the name.

    Seaside police Sgt. Nicholas Borges reopened the cold case murder of Christian Lopes. (PHOTO / BORGES FAMILY)

Seaside police Sgt. Nicholas Borges reopened the cold case murder of Christian Lopes. (PHOTO / BORGES FAMILY)

‘Very thin folder’

“Almost by accident, we found a very, very thin folder with the name Christian Lopes on it,” he says. That was the day his life changed.

“This was probably the biggest thing that ever happened to me,” Borges says.

He knew what he was up against. This had to be the oldest cold case in the county, and there wasn’t much at all in that old file to work with.

“This was one of the first killings that shocked Seaside. And I’m going back 40 years later and trying to talk to people with the ‘code of the streets,'” he says.

The slim case file didn’t help. “Document-wise, it was a very short investigation,” he says.

The bare facts involved a party shortly before Christmas 1969 at Del Monte Manor apartments — “the projects” — with more than 40 youngsters in attendance. Several fights broke out that night. The melee spilled outside and Lopes collapsed in the middle of a parking lot after he was stabbed through the neck, his carotid artery severed.

More than dozen people saw Lopes bleed out.

A Seaside officer named Marvin Dike had worked the case.

Borges was intrigued, but his pursuit didn’t kick into high gear until January 2008, when an officer was preparing to take a report from a woman whose last name was Lopes.

“It’s not a name that I heard that much,” Borges says, and he decided to tag along.

When the other officer’s questioning was done, Borges asked one of his own. “Are you guys familiar with Chris Lopes?”

He says the woman broke into tears, and her next words gave him chills.

“She said, ‘I’ve been waiting almost 40 years for a cop to ask me that.'”

She turned out to be Christian Lopes’ sister.

The woman recalled friends from those days, gave him names, but sometimes Borges would locate a witness only to learn the guy had died a few years earlier.

“I knew there was an urgency,” he says. The pathologist who performed Lopes’ autopsy was one witness Borges “missed by a few years.”

Then there was missing evidence. He asked a few old-timers at the police department why the items had been lost or destroyed.

“They said if it was done, it was a mistake,” he says. “There were some things that would have been helpful for me today.”

Early into the brief investigation in 1969, police received an anonymous tip telling them to look on the apartment roof for the murder knife. Officers found a folding “lettuce knife” there. According to testimony by Dike some 40 years later, a lab determined it had blood on it.

But the knife disappeared by the time Borges took the case.

The interviews in the file were a hodge-podge of contradictions: Some witnesses Dike interviewed blamed Mason for the killing; others blamed another man known today as “Witness 2.” Only one man said he saw Mason holding a knife, but he said he knocked it out of his hands. Others at the scene were reported as holding knives, too. Most importantly, no one said they actually saw anyone stab Lopes.

According to police reports now in the court record, officers interviewed Witness 2’s mother the day after the slaying. She said her son had gone to visit his father in Los Angeles, but she didn’t have an address. She did, however, hand police the clothing her son had worn home from the party. Officers noted it was torn and spotted with blood.

For unknown reasons, there is no record of police ever trying to track down the son. And at some point, the blood-stained clothing also disappeared.

One of the few records that did survive was a report of an interview with Mason, who voluntarily went to police the morning after the stabbing.

“My father, me and my brother, we walked into the police station and we said, ‘We heard, and we’re here,'” Mason says.

He told police that as the fighting progressed, he grabbed a knife from his brother’s car and began swinging it wildly in self-defense, according to the report.

He knew he was one of two suspects in the case.

And then the questioning was over.

In fact, the entire active investigation appears to have lasted about three weeks, according to court documents.

Mason admits he is cynical as to the reason the case was set aside.

“Back in them days, if a black man died, he just died,” he says. “Who ever heard of investigating a murder for three weeks and then dropping it?”

Mason had been planning to go to Chico State that fall, but police asked him to stay in the area. Finally, he was drafted into the Army, but still, no one came calling.

There is no record Witness 2 was ever contacted.

The years passed.

Borges says it isn’t clear why the homicide appears to have been entirely forgotten for four decades.

“I don’t know why it wasn’t looked at before it was. Maybe officers looked at the file and said, ‘Impossible,'” he says. He says his own thought was, “Maybe these witnesses have evolved and want to tell you what happened. People change.”

Within two years of reopening the case, it was one of those witnesses, a man named Charles Lee Carr Jr., 61, who gave Borges what he had been hoping for: an eyewitness account of the slaying.

Carr, who enlisted in the Marines the day after the slaying and returned to Seaside in the 1990s, said in several interviews he saw Mason stab Lopes in the back of the neck.

Borges tracked down Mason’s older brother, who gave him Mason’s cellphone number.

It was time to head to Texas.

Case dismissed

Mason had been in Monterey County Jail for two months when his preliminary hearing was held in December 2010.

After four decades and years of retirement, Officer Dike appeared on the stand, lucid and articulate. Carr, however, was another matter.

By the hearing’s end, Judge Larry Hayes noted contradictions in Carr’s testimony and said he did not find him at all credible, “not so much from the question of honesty, but perhaps the passage of time.”

Hayes ruled there was insufficient evidence to hold Mason on a charge of murder, but ordered him to face trial on a manslaughter charge.

The District Attorney’s Office immediately filed paperwork reinstating the murder charge.

Mason’s bail was lowered from $1 million to $20,000, and in July 2011, after nine months in jail, he went home to Texas to await his day in court.

He says his health worsened and he underwent a heart bypass operation while his attorneys, the father and son team of Fred and Mike Herro, fought for a dismissal.

The Herros’ motion, made on grounds the case was so old and witnesses so sparse that Mason couldn’t reasonably defend himself, eventually made it before Judge Russell Scott, who said he would decide the question after Mason’s trial.

Fred Herro was stunned by the ruling. “Why subject somebody to that?” he says.

Trial was set for Feb. 4 of this year, and Mason waited to return to California. He knew once he left Texas, he might never come home.

Then the unexpected happened.

Last September, Witness 2, the other top suspect from long ago, walked into the Seaside police station. Borges had interviewed him a few times earlier. Life hadn’t been kind to the man. His health was even frailer than Mason’s because he had been the victim of a robbery and was beaten in the head and set on fire. He suffered from several serious illnesses.

In a rambling, conflicting statement to police, Witness 2 implicated others in the slaying before also indicating he stabbed Lopes, and that he threw the knife on the apartment roof.

It wasn’t a clear-cut confession, but it was enough to cast more doubt on Carr’s already shaky testimony, and Borges dutifully sent the tape and transcript to the district attorney.

When prosecutor Meredith Sillman learned that Witness 2 had come forward with another version of the murder, she was stunned. “Shocking would probably be the right word,” she says.

Soon she had to make her own phone calls.

She told the Lopes family it was over.

“It was a hard conversation to have with them,” she says. “It’s one of the hardest things for a DA, or a defense attorney, to have those conversations with a family.”

Borges says he was disappointed upon hearing the news, but felt some comfort after speaking with the Lopes siblings and other relatives with whom he has stayed in contact throughout the case.

“I feel good that the family has peace of mind in this case. They have answers now that they waited 40 years for,” he says.

“We did our job.”

Borges still believes Carr told the truth and that he had the right man.

Currently a sergeant, Borges’ goal is to become a detective sergeant.

“There’s a lot of cold cases that I’d love to investigate,” he says. “There’s a lot of people out there waiting like the Lopes family for some answers.”

The Herros say Sillman did the right thing by dismissing the case, an act they say took integrity.

On Friday, two days after publicly announcing the case was dismissed, Sillman reflected on its meaning.

“It brought me back to our ethical responsibilities and making tough calls,” she says. “It’s one thing to try to push this case to trial, to say, ‘We’re going to let the jury decide.’ The lesson I learned is that’s not what we’re here for.

“I have this contradictory evidence and I run the risk of convicting an innocent person. I need to say, ‘There is a reasonable doubt. We’re not going to go further. We need to do the hard call that’s not always easy to do.’

“It’s not easy to tell the family. It’s not easy to tell the investigating officer who’s invested years of his life.”

Ultimately, Sillman says, the lesson wasn’t about winning, but about justice.

“This is the type of case that really does show that the system works,” she says. “When you have hard-working, ethical people on all sides, I think the system works.”

Clearing his name

Mason believes he knows why Witness 2 was moved to speak up after so many years.

“Do you think the man up in heaven was looking down on me, to have the same person they looked at 40 years ago come forward?” he asks, still reeling from the news.

Last week, he went from preparing to fly back to California and battle in court for his life to wondering what to do next.

Because he hasn’t been officially exonerated, his lawyers say he has little hope of suing to recoup his costs. Although he was represented by a public defender, he is still amassing bills connected to the case. Even the ambulance company that took him to the Arizona hospital is trying to make him pay up, he says.

What he cares most about now is regaining his health and his name.

“They still believe (I did it). That hurts,” he says. “I don’t want to be remembered as being some guy who murdered somebody. I can’t change anybody’s opinion of me, but people have been living for 40 years with some awful thoughts. Now I just want them to hear the facts, the truth.”

He says he is nothing if not a fighter.

“I’m high spirit, high energy. The man up above, I know he has some purpose for me.”


Woman with gang ties gets 70 months prison


Woman with gang ties sent to prison for 70 months


Herald Staff Writer

Friday, November 23, 2012

Rosa Martinez, arrested in Operation Garlic Press

A woman who had close ties to prominent Salinas and Watsonville gangs has been sentenced to nearly six years in prison following last year’s Operation Garlic Press Sweeps.

The case of Rosa Martinez, 32, has been viewed by some in law enforcement as a classic example of the consequences of the supporting roles woman often play when they get involved with gangs.

Martinez was sentenced last week to 70 months in federal prison after pleading guilty earlier this year to possessing methamphetamine with intent to sell, conspiracy, and aiding and abetting. After prison, she will be placed on four years supervised release, officials said.

Numerous letters of support submitted by her attorney show a network of women, some relations and some not, who described her rough background and said Martinez has been working hard to overcome her drug habit even, as she awaited trial, earning a certificate of leadership in a parenting program for incarcerated mothers.

Despite the pleas from supporters for leniency, on Nov. 15, Northern District Judge D. Lowell Jensen gave her the higher term that prosecutors had requested.

Northern District spokesman Jack Gillund said Martinez will begin serving her sentence immediately.

A former girlfriend and colleague of local Norteño and Nuestra Familia gang members, Martinez attracted the notice of local police and FBI agents ever since a violent schism among her lovers, family, and the gang took place seven years ago.

Her life was not unusual for women romantically involved with gang members, although for years law enforcement tended to look the other way and focus mainly on the men.

Local law enforcement officials say they need to learn more about the roles played by women associating with criminal gangs.

Salinas police chief Kelly McMillin said that during his years on the beat, he and fellow officers were familiar with women who held firearms and drugs for male gang members, “playing a supporting role.”

But he said there still isn’t enough known about the forces that lead to women’s entanglement in that life.

“There is a national trend that is looking at the role of women and gangs. There’s new research going on and I hope it informs law enforcement about their roles,” he said.

Research has been funded by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, including a study by Angela Wolf of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency looking at family and other factors that may help pull girls away from gangs and their crimes.

“I hope (the research) shows us what we need to do to keep women out of that lifestyle,” McMillin said.

Carol Huerta

Martinez became a target of local police surveillance in 2005, while she and a Castroville woman, Carol Huerta, were followed as they visited Nuestra Familia gang generals in Alameda County Jail. One of their colleagues, a young Salinas woman named Crystal Morado, was murdered on Hecker Pass Road in what gang investigators believed was a gang-sanctioned killing. As other homicides followed, Martinez ‘s cousin was eventually convicted of shooting her boyfriend in a hit ordered by her former lover, a gang leader.

Huerta is now facing federal drug conspiracy charges in a Sacramento federal court, and Martinez was among more than 100 people, nearly half of them from Monterey County, who were arrested during Garlic Press’s five-county sweep targeting Norteño gang members and associates suspected of trafficking in firearms, drugs and stolen cars.

Agents at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives began the investigation in March 2010 in collaboration with Gilroy police. By the time it culminated in October 2011, more than 400 officers from about 40 agencies were involved, including Salinas police and the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office.

Some defendants faced federal charges while other have been tried in local courts.

Last March, Miguel Gonzalez, 37, of Salinas, and Adrian Gamino, 31, of Morgan Hill, were the operation’s first defendants to be sentenced on the federal side of the multi-agency case. Both men received 20-year sentences.


All contents ©2012 MONTEREY COUNTY HERALD and may not be republished without written permission.

Drug War Finances and Gangs

I ran across this interesting breakdown of how the illegal drug industry breaks down, money wise.

In “Why the US Doesn’t Have Mexico-Style Drug Cartels… Yet,” Nathan Jones shows how much market share the U.S. network of small and mid-level distributors control — in fact, it’s the majority of the revenue in the cocaine biz, according to his graphic.

This coincides with my own view of gangs as end-level retailers in a vast underground industry that spans the Americas. While gang kids may believe they’re fighting for respect or their version of a cause, they’re actually just the end of the line, a disposable workforce in a massive $29.5 billion business.

I’ve reported before on Nuestra Familia’s new direct ties to Mexican cartels and I just finished an article on the connection between U.S. gangs and the Mexican drug wars for an upcoming issue of Nieman Reports.

I’m also working on a piece about La Familia Michoacana in Northern California, so stay tuned.

Musician convicted in drug case


Musician convicted in drug case


By JULIA REYNOLDS, Herald Salinas Bureau
Nov. 15, 2009


SACRAMENTO — A musician’s ballads of the travails and glories of narcotics trafficking became a focal point this month as the government won its first conviction in a massive drug and gang racketeering case that swept up more than two dozen defendants, many from Monterey County.

In spring 2007, Operation Valley Star netted 26 alleged members and associates of the Nuestra Familia, or NF, gang in Monterey County and California’s Central Valley, who were charged with dozens of criminal counts revolving around a purported gang conspiracy to sell drugs throughout the United States.

Among those picked up was singer-songwriter Jose Angel Villaseñor.

Almost from the start, Villaseñor asked to be tried separately from others in the vast federal case. His co-defendants are scheduled to begin trials a year from now.

In Villaseñor’s case, which was heard last week in Sacramento, a federal judge prohibited any mention of gangs or the Nuestra Familia. Other than the drug deals, there is no evidence Villaseñor was involved with the gang, and he has never been charged with any gang activity.

But others in the case are documented as top leaders and associates of the Nuestra Familia from Monterey County. At one point, a prominent NF member was caught on tape saying that for every pound of drugs sold, $200 would be sent to NF “banks” in prison, benefiting the gang’s leaders.

The voice on that tape was former Castroville resident Mario Diaz, for years a top target of FBI agents.

In a dramatic turnaround, Diaz has now become a witness for the government in its case against Villaseñor.

Although the government once dubbed the case’s central conspiracy “The Mario Diaz Drug Trafficking Organization,” prosecutors now acknowledge they sat down with Diaz for a “proffer session” for cooperation only days after he was arrested.

Details of that deal are not public, but people close to the case say Diaz has already entered a secret plea agreement.

Last week, Diaz testified that he and Villaseñor bought and sold drugs from each other and that Villaseñor even sold Diaz a customized car with a secret compartment to hide drugs — claims backed in part by recordings of wiretapped phone calls.

But much of the testimony in Villaseñor’s weeklong trial centered around whether he was in reality a drug dealer or a performer.

‘The Outsiders’

Originally from the town of Canatlán in the Mexican state of Durango, Villaseñor became a singer-songwriter who tried to make it in the competitive San Francisco Bay Area music scene.

His band, Los Fuereños de Durango, traveled to Bay Area night clubs in a funky red bus which, according to trial testimony, was owned by Villaseñor but driven by several members of the band. Crude block letters on the bus’s side read “Fuereños,” a Spanish word that means “Outsiders.”

Villaseñor would often serve as the band’s leader and deal with bookings, said his occasional bandmate Saul Coronado Jr., who sings and plays keyboard as a solo act and with other groups.

“He had more love for the music than the other guys,” Coronado said.

Los Fuereños’ play list was a mix of dance tunes and original ballads composed by Villaseñor. Some were narco-corridos, an immensely popular genre of Mexican music whose lyrics tell of drug traffickers’ victories and troubles, something akin to gangster rap in the U.S.

Made popular in the 1970s by the San Jose-based band Los Tigres del Norte — in whose songs the narcos often meet with violent deaths — narco-corridos have since been banned from radio stations and nightclubs in some Mexico states. But not in the U.S.

“Whatever sells, that’s what we play,” said bandmate Coronado, who testified at Villaseñor’s trial. At some clubs, he said, the band wouldn’t be able to play at all if singers couldn’t satisfy the crowd’s demand for narco-ballads.

But corridos can be “about drugs, heroes, anything,” he said. “There’s even a corrido about César Chávez.”

One of Villaseñor’s songs, “The Black Taurus,” tells the story of three women from Durango who every week drive a black Ford Taurus into the U.S., presumably to deliver drugs and bring money back home. It laments the fate of a small Mexican town where the U.S. market for crystal methamphetamine, known as ice, has taken over the town’s economy:

“In Santiago Papasquiaro, no one grows crops anymore,” goes the song in Spanish. “Ice is where it’s at.”

‘The Lieutenant’

As evidence of Villaseñor’s involvement in Mario Diaz’s drug conspiracy, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Hitt offered up 20 wiretapped phone conversations in which the two use coded language to discuss and plan a number of drug deals.

Diaz testified that two of those deals took place on the band’s bus, one with Monterey County resident Gerardo Mora. In another, Diaz said he asked Salinas NF associate Juan “Wino” Gallegos to pick up drug sale proceeds from Villaseñor in the bus, which was parked in Fremont. Gallegos left with the cash, he said, along with marijuana he bought from part of the proceeds.

But in a search of Villaseñor’s residence, FBI and state narcotics agents found no drugs or drug residue, although they did find what they called a drug-packaging area stocked with plastic Glad sandwich baggies, rubber bands, acetone and the dietary supplement MSM, which prosecutors said can be used to “cut” drugs for sale.

At one point, Diaz said, he needed a special car to transport drugs to Ohio, where a kilo of cocaine could fetch $4,000 to $6,000 more than in California. According to testimony, Villaseñor charged Diaz $6,000 for a Mazda Millenium fortified with an X-ray-proof secret compartment that could hold eight kilos of cocaine. Diaz said it was used to do just that when a woman from Salinas drove with a companion to unload the drugs in Ohio.

As surveillance of Villaseñor continued, federal agents soon identified him as the man whose stage name was “El Teniente,” Spanish for lieutenant.

When he was arrested, agents found a business card in his wallet that read El Teniente de la Sierra (The Lieutenant of the Mountains), a card prosecutors said bore one of the wiretapped phone numbers next to a photo of Villaseñor in a cowboy hat.

But in a surprising appearance on the last day of trial, Villaseñor’s bandmate Coronado declared under oath that he was El Teniente.

“It’s my artistic name,” he said, explaining that Villaseñor had considered using the name for a little while but decided to let Coronado have it.

El Teniente’s MySpace site shows Coronado decked out in his cowboy finest, and several of Coronado’s albums and YouTube videos bear that name.

The face on the card that agents found in Villaseñor’s wallet, he said, was also his.

“That’s me,” he said. “I took the picture.”

He also testified he was the listed owner of one of the cell phones prosecutors said belonged to Villaseñor, though surveillance agents reported they had seen Villaseñor answer it.

Coronado, however, testified that various band members often answered that and other wiretapped phones, as he pointed to the same phone numbers listed for booking calls on the band’s posters and CDs.

“They’re reaching,” Villaseñor’s attorney Dina Santos said of the prosecutors’ case. “… It doesn’t make any sense.”

For the jury, such conflicting testimony apparently did not overpower what prosecutor Hitt called the “overlapping layers” of evidence that centered on the 20 taped phone conversations.

Last Thursday, jurors took less than two hours to find Villaseñor guilty of three counts, one of conspiring to distribute methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana and two of using telephones to carry out the acts.

Villaseñor faces 10 years to life in federal prison. He is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 25.

The Alex Sanchez Debacle

I was as shocked as anyone to learn that Alex Sanchez, former-gangster-turned-outreach-worker and head of Homies Unidos, was indicted this summer in a federal RICO case for allegedly still calling shots with MS-13 gang members.

I was even more shocked to read Tom Hayden’s unbridled defense of Sanchez in several articles for The Nation, and his comparison of the case to the Sleepy Lagoon murder scandal that set the sour tone for LAPD-Latino relations for decades to come.

I was mainly shocked because Hayden wrote the pieces before he even read the wiretap transcripts used to indict Sanchez.

Surely he’s read them by now? No comment?

Not that I know for sure one way or another whether Sanchez is guilty or not of plotting the murder of some guy called Camarón in El Salvador. But I did read the prosecutors’ translated transcripts of Sanchez’s phone conversations with his homies.

Yep, there’s enough fudge room in the translation of street-slang Spanish to raise doubts about whether Sanchez and friends were seriously trying to have the guy killed. And there’s also enough there to see it the feds’ way: Sanchez definitely had some hard-core problems with this dude and was not seeking the path of peace.

So to read Hayden’s critique of the feds’ view of the conversations before he had all the facts was surprising. But it shouldn’t be. Hayden and I once clashed, and the topic was gangs.

We were on a panel in Los Angeles, where Hayden and the beloved Father Greg Boyle both “ganged up” on me, if you will. I was trying to explain the family-oriented nature of our rural Norteño gangs when they accused me of being a typical reporter by sensationalizing the “anomoly” of a boy who was raised to be a Norteño.

Well, I of course adore Father Greg (didn’t care either way about Hayden) and so left not only broken-hearted but bewildered and angry. The entire panel revolved around LA’s interpretation of what street gangs are and how they work — while our little Northern Cali backwoods gangsters didn’t even rate a place at the gang-discussion table.

In fact, we, the supposed grown-ups, were acting just like gang kids. Defending our turf. Or maybe we were more like the mothers and fathers of gang members, the parents all of us in this field meet every day. You know, the ones in complete denial. My son a gang member? Never!

Denial is how this Alex Sanchez thing smells to me, an automatic defense of turf before the facts are in. Granted, I am a few hundred miles away. Some people I really respect really respect him. I want him to be innocent. I’d surely jump to the defense of one of my colleagues if he were indicted by the feds, especially if it was someone I truly believed had changed.

I also know more than a few people who paradoxically do good work to keep kids away from gangs but still keep a toe in the mix themselves — so it’s not at all far-fetched that Sanchez could be doing the same.

I wish I had enough faith in our federal courts to believe the truth will come out in trial. But that’s not how RICO cases work. In gang conspiracy trials, “vague” is too often the name of the game. I also believe (and have amassed some evidence for a future story) that the FBI has consistently over-hyped the threat posed by MS-13 to near hysteria levels.

And so we may never know whether Sanchez wanted to have Camarón killed.

I do know enough from reading his vindictive words that I probably wouldn’t want him to mentor a troubled kid I care about. He may or may not be guilty of conspiring to commit murder, but we should all acknowledge that — at least in those conversations he thought private — he spewed hate and vengeance and was no peacemaker. It’s hard not to sense he was disingenuous at best.

I hope in the big picture that I’m wrong, that this was a momentary lapse of judgment in otherwise radiant turnaround. If I am, I’ll send Hayden a bunch of flowers. Hell, an olive branch.

PS. The language police want Hayden and The Nation’s copy desk to note that the dead guy’s street name is Camarón (Spanish for shrimp) and not “Cameron.”

Gang and drug crime intiative unveiled

And here is the just-out brochure describing the National Network for Safe Communities, the (very) innovative gang and drug crime initiative unveiled Monday at the US mayors’ conference in Providence. Looks like 30 cities (and counting) are on board so far, including Stockton and Sacramento from my fair state. And Salinas? Not yet, anyway. Hmmm…

Just click this link to download the PDF: nationalnetwork

Here’s more about the program and the cities that are on board: http://www.jjay.cuny.edu/2666.php

Bold plan to fight gang and drug crime unveils today

According to The New Yorker’s News Desk, the Obama administration is paying attention to the “Boston Miracle” approach of David Kennedy, who is set to unveil bold plans later today for fighting gang and drug crime in US cities.

Check back for more on today’s meeting of US mayors, to be attended by Joe Biden and Attorney General Eric Holder.


Reporting about my reporting

For  press coverage of Blood in the Fields, go here.

Reporting on traumatic events

• When Crime is Just the Beginning of the Story
• Bringing What’s Buried in Folders to Life
• Strategies for Reporters Coping with Stress
Coverage of Julia Reynolds’ work at the 2009 Aftermath Conference at Harvard in Nieman Reports.

How we report on youth violence, a guide
From Chicago is the World

Gang prevention strategies

Project Ceasefire
Sandip Roy interviews Julia Reynolds, Prof. Victor Rios of UC Santa Barbara and Stockton Peacekeepers Jose Gomez and Ralph Womack on San Francisco’s KALW 91.7 fm show  “Your Call,” about Project Ceasefire and other strategies to deal with gang and youth violence. Oct. 14, 2009

Operation Knockout II
California Watch reports on Julia Reynolds’ coverage in the Monterey County Herald of Operation Knockout, the April 2010 take-down of Nuestra Familia associates in Salinas, and revives an earlier interview with one of the gang’s entrepreneurs.
by Michael Montgomery, California Watch, Apr 28, 2010

Operation Knockout Meets Ceasefire
In a television interview and panel with fellow Bay Area reporters, Reynolds discusses the April 22, 2010 Nuestra Familia takedown in Salinas. Hosted by Belva Davis, KQED-tv, “This Week in Northern California” Apr 23, 2010

Operation Knockout I
Radio interview with Julia Reynolds on the day of the Knockout raids in Salinas and how Ceasefire might help with the aftermath.
by Cy Musiker, KQED-fm, Apr 22, 2010

Nuestra Familia: Our Family
Radio interview with reporters Julia Reynolds and George Sánchez about the surprising origins of the NF and California’s gang wars
by Ben Adler, KAZU-fm, Apr 28, 2006

Documentary Goes Inside Nuestra Familia
by Brenda Moore, Monterey County Herald, Dec 2, 2005

Documentary Examines Salinas Gang Problem
Reporters follow current, former gang members
KSBW-TV, Nov. 11, 2005

Exposé: America’s Investigative Reports
This clip from the documentary was featured on PBS’s Web site.


Outed by Public TV Web Site, Fleeing Arms Dealer is Nabbed
Current Newspaper
June 24, 2002

The NAFTA Gang episode

In late 1999, our tiny bilingual magazine el Andar was threatened with a $10 million defamation lawsuit by one of Mexico’s most powerful families, the Hanks — over an article by yours truly, titled “The NAFTA Gang.” We refused to retract our reporting and with the support of first amendment groups and press coverage here and abroad, the family backed down within a year.

Drug War on Trial
by Mark Schapiro, The Nation, Sept 6, 2001

U.S. Based Hispanic Magazine Stands Ground Against Powerful Mexican Family
By Mary Jo McConahay, Pacific News Service, Oct. 22, 1999