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Reasonable Doubt and the Cold Case

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

DA dismisses charges, but man’s name not cleared

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Read the original version of this story here.

By JULIA REYNOLDS
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.”

 

FBI arrests gang leader

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FBI arrests major gang leader

Alberto “Bird” Larez was convicted in Operation Black Widow

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By JULIA REYNOLDS
Herald Staff Writer

Sunday, November 11, 2012

“Bird” Larez, pre-Black Widow

A high-ranking Nuestra Familia gang leader from Salinas was arrested this week in an FBI takedown of one of the gang’s largest street regiments, federal officials said.

Alberto Larez, 45, known in Salinas as “Bird,” was taken into custody Thursday morning at his residence in Red Bluff, a small town south of Redding. Federal agents also arrested 17 alleged members of the gang’s Sacramento regiment, including Vidal “Spider” Fabela, 45, another gang member well-known to law enforcement.

“Removing dangerous drugs and violent criminals from our neighborhoods is essential to ensure a bright future for our families,” said Herbert M. Brown, special agent in charge of the Sacramento Division of the FBI. “Takedowns such as these demonstrate that the FBI and its task force partners are committed to disrupting violent gang activity and improving the quality of life in our communities.”

Larez was one of two high-ranking Nuestra Familia captains who were released from federal prison in 2010. He and Henry “Happy” Cervantes, 48, both faced life sentences in the FBI’s sweeping Operation Black Widow conspiracy case in 2000.

Instead, they received 10-year sentences in a plea deal negotiated by the gang’s leaders after problems surfaced with case’s star witness and his role in a murder at Cap’s Saloon in Salinas.

Since then, law enforcement officials feared that when Larez and Cervantes were released from prison in 2010, they were given marching orders by the generals, who are serving life sentences in a Colorado federal prison.

Those orders, police said, included re-taking control of the gang’s diminished street regiments.

Police say the gang has been undergoing an internal power struggle because one group of leaders was sent to federal prison in Colorado after Black Widow, while a newer group of leaders in Pelican Bay is trying to exert its control over cities like Salinas.

Larez and those arrested in last week’s raid all answer to the Colorado generals, federal officials said.

Cervantes was arrested late last year and charged with murder in the stabbing deaths of two men found in a burning Oakland apartment.

In addition to the arrests, FBI officials said Thursday’s operation involved the seizure of drugs, cash and vehicles, including about 25 pounds of methamphetamine, 40 pounds of marijuana, and cocaine, heroin and oxycontin; about $35,000 in cash; 12 cars, including luxury brands such as Lexus and Cadillac; and about 30 weapons as well as ammunition.

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

The Long Journey, Part Two

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Man who surrendered has no regrets

Ex-gang member admits role in murder

Johnny Angel Martinez / Claudia Meléndez, The Monterey Herald

Johnny Angel Martinez / Claudia Meléndez, The Monterey Herald

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By JULIA REYNOLDS, Herald Staff Writer
Monday, December 12, 2011

Part two of two
Part one: The Long Journey


When Johnny Angel Martinez was released from prison just before Thanksgiving 2008, he was separated from his wife and jobless.

He moved to Santa Cruz County, where he attended Cabrillo College and volunteered at Barrios Unidos and other organizations helping at-risk youth. The work was exhilarating and helped pull him through an otherwise tough time.

He recalls that one day, while volunteering at an alternative school housed at Barrios Unidos in Santa Cruz, he counseled a member of his once-rival gang who had been caught with a knife at school.

The youth asked Martinez why he would help his gang’s enemy.

“Why do you even care about me?” he said.

Martinez replied that he was not a gang member any more.

“The reason that I care is because you’re … a human being,” Martinez said.

Martinez not only convinced the boy to hand over the knife, he said he also talked him into staying until police arrived.

“You made one good decision,” Martinez told him. “If you keep on making good decisions, good things are going to come out of it.”

The contrast between the boy’s behavior and his own stung.

“Here are 15-year-old kids doing the right thing based on the information I’m giving them,” he says now. “I needed to practice what I preached.”

As his counseling career began to take off, the Williams Road slaying continued to haunt him.

He spent a year debating whether to follow his own advice and turn himself in.

He made excuses, he says, telling himself he could not willingly abandon his children, leave them fatherless while he served a long prison sentence. Why should they suffer for his past? But he also wanted to set a moral standard for his children.

Opposing thoughts nagged as well: If his role in the slaying was discovered, would it bring shame to the community organizations he worked with? If he ever decided to remarry, would the police come knocking and end the dream?

But more than any of those things, something deeper nagged at Martinez, a voice that wouldn’t be silenced, telling him he had to face what he had done.

Not because it was the right thing to do, not because he was afraid of being arrested, and not because he was overwhelmed by guilt.

Without fully understanding why, the inner voice simply told him he had to.

The act of surrendering was, he would later realize, what a normal person with a normal sense of responsibility would do.

The idea of sacrifice

In the summer of 2010, he spent several days meditating on the notion of sacrifice — “being able to give up everything that I know and I love” — while sitting in a park on Acacia Street in South Salinas.

Then one August afternoon, he stood up and began walking.

“I had one objective on my mind and that was ‘Get there.’”

As he made his way north along Main Street toward the Salinas police station, it seemed as if every temptation came along to try to turn him around.

A car full of relatives pulled up beside him.

“I felt like something was trying to do everything it could to stop me, because my nieces are like ‘Hey, Uncle Johnny!”‘

After that, the cousin he lived with drove up.

“And I just wave him off. I just put my head down and I’m walking … I remember this is the only thing I did tell myself: If I’m about to turn myself in, I want to smoke a cigarette.”

He bummed a couple of smokes before he passed the Steinbeck Library on Lincoln Street, two blocks from the police station.

He kept walking.

Once he faced the mirrored-glass doors, he took a drag, set his cigarettes carefully on the edge of a concrete stair, and stepped inside.

Police interview transcripts show he at first tried to take the full rap, claiming that he was the shooter.

“So what’s goin’ on?” a detective asked as Martinez took a seat.

“I was involved in a homicide,” he said.

“You were involved in a homicide.”

“Yes, sir.”

“OK,” the detective said, “how were you involved in a homicide?”

“I did it.”

Martinez hadn’t thought at all about what he would say. His aim had simply been to make it there without turning back.

He tried to convince the detectives he was the trigger man and could see the cops knew better. They had other sources, they said.

The officers did believe him when he at last admitted he was the driver.

Finally, another detective entered the room and said, “Can you stand up for me?”

Martinez whistled as the officers cuffed his hands behind his back.

Not forgotten

While Martinez was confronting his own past, the gang had not forgotten his mother’s brazen act of testifying against its members a decade earlier.

Meanwhile, Martinez was detained on parole violation, but by the fall of 2010, he faced a felony murder charge.

The felony murder rule holds all participants in a felony crime, such as a robbery, responsible for any homicide that results no matter their role.

In sentencing terms, it was the same as if he’d committed a first-degree murder.

“The next thing I know,” his former probation and parole officer Dan Villarreal says, “(Johnny) wrote me a letter telling me he turned himself in because he felt if he was going to continue his work with youth it was important that he start with a clean slate and not worry about things he had done in his past.”

“This really didn’t come as a big shock to me,” Villarreal says.

Little by little, Martinez began to understand why he had to turn himself in, why justice demanded it, the community expected it and why the victim’s family needed it.

He says he even began to understand the rationale behind the felony murder rule.

“The moment I pulled over my car … I knew in my mind that something could possibly happen. And it did happen.”

His mother, who had quietly moved from her secret location in the Central Valley to South Monterey County, visited and wrote to him at the Salinas jail.

She told her son she was very proud of him. During visits, she made him laugh and he began to believe their strained relationship was on the mend.

Chuca holding a grandchild / Provided photo

Then one day last March, Martinez heard a quick announcement of breaking news on the jail television. A 57-year old woman was killed in Soledad. His thoughts raced. His mom was 57. She lived in Soledad.

Nah, he told himself. It isn’t her.

Straining to watch the five o’clock news through his cell door tray slot, he heard his mother’s name. She had been shot and killed that morning while warming up her car.

He called out for a guard and told him, “I just found out that my mom got murdered.”

A deputy took him to call a relative but no one answered. He spent the night in his cell without knowing anything more than what he’d seen on the news.

He says he’s grateful to the classification officers who let him listen to his mother’s memorial service on a jail phone. He dialed the phone of a relative who held it next to a speaker.

He is convinced his old gang is behind her death.

“Seeing the pictures told me a thousand words. I saw the bullet holes in the back, I knew already. Execution-style from behind, you know.”

Plea agreement

This fall, he accepted a plea deal that offered 15 to life for a murder he did not commit but felt responsible for. He took it, even though it meant pleading to a charge of second-degree murder, saying he did not want to put Javier Tovar’s family — and taxpayers — through the agony of a trial.

At his Dec. 1 sentencing hearing, he asked Tovar’s relatives, who were in the courtroom, as well as the residents of Salinas for forgiveness.

“I am sorry beyond belief, beyond any comprehension,” he said. “I would think of how unfair it was that I was free, that I was alive. It didn’t seem right.

“I’ve heard the word courage being used … The fact is, the night Javier Tovar was murdered, he was murdered by three cowards. And I was one of the cowards that was there.”

He was, he told the court, especially moved by a letter written by Tovar’s sister that mentioned the way he smiled.

“It tore me to pieces when I read it. And it should have. And the reason being is one of the things I thought about was, do they miss his smile? You know, the light in his eyes.”

Martinez says he has no regrets about surrendering, despite evidence indicating he might never have been charged if he hadn’t. His plans now revolve around making the most of his time in prison. He’s eager to set up more men’s programs and perhaps conduct academic research behind the walls.

“He has always been a leader,” says Villarreal.

Despite the stacks of letters and commendations he’s received for what many describe as doing the right thing — Martinez says he does not consider himself brave or heroic or exceptional.

“What I did is not courageous,” he insists. “This is expected behavior of anyone in our society.

“Through doing this, I’ve gained so much more. I may be given 15 to life, but to me that’s not the end of the road. What has happened inside of me supersedes it all, way more than I even expected.”

Julia Reynolds can be reached at 648-1187 or jreynolds@montereyherald.com.


Part one: The Long Journey



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All contents ©2011 MONTEREY COUNTY HERALD and may not be republished without written permission.

The Long Journey: Johnny Angel Martinez’ search for redemption

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THE LONG JOURNEY

Johnny Angel Martinez ended his search for redemption by turning himself in

Johnny Angel Martinez holds a photo of his late mother, known as Chuca / Claudia Meléndez, The Monterey Herald

Johnny Angel Martinez holds a photo of his late mother, known as Chuca / Claudia Meléndez, The Monterey Herald

By JULIA REYNOLDS, Herald Staff Writer
Sunday, December 11, 2011

Part one of two
Part two: Man who surrendered has no regrets


Editor’s note:
On Dec. 1, 2011, Johnny Angel Martinez , 34, was sentenced to 15 years to life after turning himself in to police for his role in a Salinas murder 10 years earlier. This two-part series tells the story of Martinez’s decision to face justice.

 

On an August afternoon last year, Johnny Angel Martinez carefully set down his cigarette, walked through the front doors of the Salinas Police Department and told an attending officer, “I need to talk to a homicide detective.”

He told the officer it had to do with a homicide he was involved in.

“Excuse me?” he recalled her saying. “Not a homicide that you know about or that you witnessed?”

No — it was one he was involved in, he said. She asked him to wait. He told her he would be right outside finishing his cigarette. Martinez knew it could be one of the last smokes he would have for years, maybe forever.

As he inhaled and listened to his MP3 player, he told himself, “Don’t leave.”

A voice inside that he had been resisting for a year told him this was the necessary conclusion to a journey that began almost a decade earlier when he was ordered to help his gang kill his own mother.

It was a journey that would lead him on a difficult search for redemption and end with a new start on life that he knew could only come from facing justice.

A tough upbringing

The 34-year-old Martinez says he was just 5 when he saw a junkie die of an overdose in his mother’s home.

“Johnny had it real hard,” says his childhood friend Angel Botello of Martinez’s upbringing in Salinas and the Central Valley.

Martinez said he never even saw a picture of his Puerto Rican father. His mother was a heroin addict and her home frequently hosted other addicts. One of young Johnny’s first jobs was running and getting the spoon and the ice, tools his mother used for treating overdoses until paramedics arrived.

Other times he showed novice users how to shoot up while the grown-ups laughed and called it cute. When he played alone, he recalls, he pretended to inject a syringe into his arm. Miraculously, he never shot heroin in his life.

A year later, he says, his mother was boosting him through open windows so he could help her rob houses. He was told that a good man provides for his family, even if that means stealing and robbing to do it.

Largely because of his mother’s addiction, he went in and out of foster homes and seemed to live two lives. Throughout his childhood, Martinez says, he was a straight-A student who eventually moved into advanced placement classes. He was a brainy boy who skateboarded and listened to heavy metal.

Former probation and parole officer Dan Villarreal, now director of the Strengthening Families program in Salinas, has known Martinez since he was 12 years old.

“Even during his incarceration in juvenile hall, group homes or the California Youth Authority … many staff wondered, ‘What is this kid doing here?’” Villarreal says.

Martinez says his mother had her own expectations for him. Known to everyone as Chuca, she would brag to friends that one day her son Johnny Angel would be an important gangster.

The family lore was that Chuca was so dedicated to the gangs of Salinas that while she was in labor, she had a relative drive her from the Central Valley so that Johnny could be born in Salinas.

He was 14 years old when, in June 1992, he held his friend Prescott Torrez’s head in his lap as the boy lay dying. He had wandered into the crossfire of rival gangs outside the Breadbox Recreation Center in East Salinas. Prescott, 15, would be the first of more than two dozen friends Martinez would see murdered over the years.

Through his teens, Martinez graduated from stints in juvenile hall to sentences in the California Youth Authority and then prison, from throwing punches in the park to brandishing guns. He also started using drugs, smoking pot and later using cocaine and methamphetamine.

As he ascended the gang’s ranks, he was eventually ordered to kill homeboys who had been deemed “no good” by the bosses, but fate always seemed to intervene at the last minute and the hits never happened.

By his early 20s, his role in the gang had become that of an ambassador. He was good at keeping up morale, directing younger gang members, and coordinating drug sales.

He convinced himself he was helping promising youngsters by getting them real jobs. He shared his apartment, his clothes — and his guns — with them.

Wrapped up in a crime

On Memorial Day Weekend in 2000, Martinez spent a day at Lake Nacimiento with a couple of gang associates. He says the others fell asleep as he drove them back to Salinas.

Near the fire station on Williams Road, one abruptly told him, “Pull over,” and he did so.

Martinez says he heard the shots but never saw what happened. When his companions jumped back in the car, he says, he drove them away in silence while sirens blared behind them.

He later learned that Javier Tovar, 23, had been shot in the back.

Authorities have not named Martinez’s alleged accomplices, nor any other suspects in the crime.

He recalls feeling angry, not because an innocent man was killed, but because he was now wrapped up in a crime he had not consented to. He did his best to forget what happened, push it out of his mind.

A year later, he was in prison again at the same time an entire gang crew in Salinas was charged in connection with a murder at Cap’s Saloon.

When he paroled, Martinez reported to his gang regiment that he was “out and available.”

He and his colleagues arranged to meet at a pizza parlor on East Alisal Street.

Once inside, Martinez noticed the others ordered sodas, not beer. This meeting was going to be serious.

The boss asked if he knew what was going on. “With what?” Martinez answered.

The table fell silent, he says, until another man spoke up.

“Your mom is testifying and turning evidence,” the man said.

Martinez had no idea that she was involved in any of the gang’s business, and his first reaction was anger that his mother had been selling dope for the gang and no one had bothered to ask what he would think.

But he stayed quiet.

“We’re not asking for your approval,” the boss said, “but we need to know where you’re at because she’s going to be whacked and it’s your mother.”

He said what he knew he had to say. “We have to do what we have to do.”

The organization’s leaders weren’t so heartless as to ask Martinez to do it himself, and they promised his mother wouldn’t be hit in front of family.

But the gang did need his help.

Chuca was in a witness relocation program and only Martinez could tell them where she was. They asked for a full report on her location and habits.

Although Martinez readily said yes, something made him wonder if he would really go through with it. He’d been a prominent member of the gang, but he’d never killed anyone, much less a blood relative.

It would take years before he would understand that his mother had committed a truly courageous act, that despite all she’d done to push him into the gang, she was the first with the guts to stand up to it.

Meanwhile, as a newly minted member of the gang’s upper echelon, Martinez had to prove himself by helping his “brothers” carry out their mission.

He would have to choose which family deserved his loyalty.

‘A good robot’

Today, Martinez can’t recall the hours after the order was given, whether he even ate that day or not.

He told himself: This is what happens when people rat. He was, he now says, a “good robot.”

Yet something kept him from reporting back to the gang about his mother’s whereabouts.

It was then, too, that he learned he was about to become a father.

He says the decision to leave his gang so soon after he’d joined its elite circle came in small steps.

The birth of his son helped Martinez decide to leave gangs for good. / Provided photo

It didn’t happen overnight, and he realized he hadn’t made the decision, it was made for him — he was angry because leaders decided to “tax” young street gang members 25 percent of their criminal income. He was about to get married and become a father. And the gang had just ordered him to help kill his mother.

Despite so many good reasons to get out, walking away would feel like a failure, as if he’d committed a deep betrayal.

“It was like a very bad relationship,” he says. “You ignore all the evidence … You make excuses for being treated wrong. You’re so co-dependent, afraid to be alone, afraid to take a stand, to be confident and say, ‘Hey, I don’t deserve this, you are no good for me.’”

He told himself he was a gangster, so tough he could go through with a hit on his mother, but always, he says, “some sliver of goodness” stopped him from following through.

“That didn’t make me gangster,” he says now. “It made me incredibly stupid.”

It was the impending birth of his son, he says, that pushed him to a decision.

He’d stand outside smoking, looking up at a canopy of stars and think, “I’m going to be a father. There’s still hope.”

With his new wife supporting his decision, Martinez walked into his parole agent’s office and told him, “I’m done. I’m dropping out.”

Permanent changes

After Martinez decided to leave his gang for good, the road to becoming “normal” was far from easy. In fact, it was pretty bumpy.

He was grateful the gang’s leaders respected his decision to focus on family. As long as he didn’t snitch or compete with their drug business and other crimes, they left him alone.

After his second child was born, he turned once again to his drugs of choice, cocaine and methamphetamine, when his relationship with his wife began to unravel.

By 2006, he landed back in prison after an argument with his wife turned physical.

This time, he decided, he had to make permanent changes.

He underwent counseling in domestic violence and relationships, parenting and substance abuse.

Soon he was trained to facilitate nonviolent conflict resolution. He co-founded “Freedom and Choice,” a men’s accountability group for inmates at the state prison in Jamestown.

He was a trained counselor for the “Seeking to Educate Endangered Kids” program, which provided mentoring and counseling to teens on probation.

He was especially moved, he says, by a course run by Criminon International, a group that runs prison and jail workshops addressing “the causes of criminality and restoring the criminal’s self-respect through effective drug detoxification, education and common sense programs.”

He discovered that the leadership skills he’d developed while in the gang were now useful for helping others get their lives together. He earned commendations from the associate warden and has a pile of certificates to prove it.

He earned a new moniker, “Justful Johnny,” because he had a reputation for being fair and holding himself accountable.

In 2008, Jamestown’s Associate Warden Ty Rawlinson wrote that Martinez was “instrumental in creating a new culture in this facility and quite possibly the California prison system.”

While he was locked up, he read a book about how to find happiness. It offered simple guidelines: not harming others; obeying the law; setting a good example.

Things normal people take for granted, he told himself. He began to consider whether he might one day be able to live a normal life.

He would soon discover that the more his prospects began looking up, the more that murder he’d been a part of would haunt him.

Read part two: While he is in jail awaiting trial, Martinez overhears a news report that his mother has been shot and killed. He will listen to her memorial service on a phone in jail.

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All contents ©2011 MONTEREY COUNTY HERALD and may not be republished without written permission.

 

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Women Caught Up in Gang Life

mocoherald

Women caught up in gang life
Girlfriends, wives are an integral — and sometimes expendable — part of criminal organization

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~AA

See also A Deadly Toll

By JULIA REYNOLDS, Herald Staff Writer
Sunday Oct. 30, 2011

Nearly seven years ago, three Central Coast women caught the attention of local detectives who noticed they were regu­larly driving north to a down­town Oakland jail.

The investigators discovered the three were visiting top Nuestra Familia generals — the gang’s highest-ranking leaders — who were awaiting sentenc­ing in a federal racketeering case.

Although two of the women ended up marrying the men they visited, these romances do not have happy-ever-after endings.

One woman was murdered in a plot investigators say was orchestrated by the general she married. Another was arrested last spring and faces life in prison.

The third, who had been the target of police and FBI surveil­lance for years, was Watsonville resident Rosa Martinez.

A girlfriend and colleague of local Norteño and Nuestra Familia gang members, Martin­ez, 31, has been of keen interest to local police and FBI agents since a violent schism unfolded six years ago among her lovers, family, and the Nuestra Familia.

Rosa Martinez, arrested in Operation Garlic Press

Her story exemplifies the crit­ical — and often tragic — sup­porting role played by women in California’s current version of organized crime.

Under the radar

Like many women seriously involved with gangs, law enforcement always seemed to pass Martinez by whenever the big gang indictments came down.

“Women tend not to show up on the radar real quick, so they were being used extensively by the gang regiment,” said Marina police Chief Eddie Rodriguez, a former Watsonville officer and member of a task force that was tailing the women.

During the surveillance, he said, “we got a better perspective on how women were being used. These women started popping up all over the place as couriers for the gang.”

Martinez’ under-the radar days ended this month when she was arrested as part of Operation Garlic Press, a multi-agency investigation based in Gilroy that culminated in more than 100 arrests in five counties on Oct. 14.

Martinez, who has lived in Gilroy and Watsonville, now faces judges in two different courts.

In Santa Clara County, she’s in jail on felony charges of auto theft and receiving stolen property.

In federal court, she has been indicted on two counts of conspiring to distribute methamphetamine and possession of drugs for sale.

Surveillance targets

Like her two colleagues, Martinez was romantically involved with one of the gang’s top guns.

In the Norteño gang culture, Rodriguez said, girls and women aren’t “officially” allowed to become members — but because police have historically tended to overlook them, women have come to play increasingly important roles in helping the gang conduct its business, from relaying messages to delivering drugs.

When members of Rodriguez’s multi-county Central Coast gang task force took notice of her in 2004 and 2005, Martinez was the girlfriend of the officers’ top target, a Watsonville gang regiment leader named Oscar Cabrera, also known as Baby Joker or BJ.

Her cousin, Anthony Rubalcava, known on the streets as Tigre, was considered BJ’s right-hand man.

The general’s wife – Castrovile resident Carol Huerta

Martinez and two other women — Carol Huerta, of Castroville, who was close to the gang’s highest leaders, and Crystal Morado, a 19year-old from Salinas — became task force surveillance targets.

In 2004, the officers began watching Morado as she visited a general in the Oakland jail, James “Tibbs” Morado.

Within months, she married him. Although Tibbs was twice her age and doing life in prison, marrying him meant Morado would be taken care of financially by the gang. Some friends and relatives call her relationship with the gang’s No. 1 leader a case of “looking for love in all the wrong places.”

Whatever her motive, the marriage was doomed. In January 2005, months after her whirlwind visiting-room romance blossomed into marriage, Morado, then 20, was found shot to death in a parked car on Hecker Pass Road, just east of the line between Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties.

Prison communication

The task force officers suspected that BJ and Tigre, as the local regiment brass, might have been involved.

California prison investigators later found a message smuggled between gang leaders indicating Crystal’s husband, the general called Tibbs, had sanctioned the hit. The note explained that she was killed because she was no longer “functioning” for the gang.

Friends put it more simply: she’d wanted to spend more time with her infant son and had tired of delivering messages and money for the general and his cohorts.

A few months later, Martinez had become Tibbs’ messenger, and she visited him at the Oakland jail.

In April, Huerta traveled with her and sat down with Nuestra Familia general Joseph “Pinky” Hernandez.

Their visits took place with glass between them. Police detectives who observed them noticed the generals took care to guard their language as they spoke. The officers were on the lookout for subtle or coded ways of communicating gang orders.

In June 2005, Watsonville police stopped Martinez on a traffic warrant. Officers found six blank money orders for $500 each, along with the prison mailing address of David Cervantes, the gang’s highest-ranking leader in Pelican Bay State Prison. A seventh money order was made out to Cervantes.

Her wallet also contained a handwritten note addressed to BJ, saying Tibbs believed BJ wasn’t paying enough attention to recent communications from the gang.

To the task force officers, the discovery meant Martinez had become a courier for the gang’s highest-level leaders, filtering messages to the streets while delivering “tax” money to generals’ prison trust accounts.

But the most intriguing find was a small digital camera among Martinez’s belongings. In it were images of someone holding a large handwritten note against a glass window. The face wasn’t visible, but the clothing looked like an Oakland jail uniform.

Officers decided the piece of paper contained a general’s message to gang members in the Central Coast.

Martinez was released and she soon dropped by the jail again.

Hidden camera

This time the guards were ready. When their metal detector went off, Martinez as usual told the officers it must have been her underwire bra.

A more thorough search by female guards revealed that Martinez had tucked a new digital camera into her bra.

She was banned from visiting the jail.

Her travel companion, Huerta, meanwhile, had married the general “Pinky” Hernandez. Authorities never determined if the two were legally wed or had simply declared themselves husband and wife, but according to court testimony, the position gave Huerta authority among gang leaders in Salinas and Castroville.

Gang members said they rewarded her with free drugs and rent money as an honored general’s wife.

By fall, Martinez had become romantically involved with another man — Mark Escobedo, one of BJ’s underlings.

That sticky situation, combined with drug debts owed, made Escobedo believe he was in bad standing with the gang.

He was also a police informant.

Tigre – Anthony Rubalcava, now serving 55 to life

On a September day in 2005, Escobedo told his law enforcement handlers that BJ had ordered him to collect drug money later that night with Tigre and another gang member.

Escobedo told the officers he was afraid the gang would kill him during the drive over Hecker Pass Road, but at midnight, he slid into a car seat in front of Tigre, seeming to accept his fate.

When they returned from Gilroy, the car pulled to a stop not far from the spot where Crystal Morado was killed.

According to court documents, Escobedo had tried asking for mercy, but Tigre was silent. Escobedo was ordered out of the car and moments later, Tigre told him, “You’re staying here.”

Escobedo saw the muzzle flash and heard the blast, but he never saw the gun. He was shot again in the back as he tried to run away.

Martinez learned early that morning that her new boyfriend was in a hospital clinging to life.

He had been shot by her cousin, in a hit arranged by her former lover.

Exit strategies

For women involved in gangs, the lines between love, family and crime are often blurred.

Angela Wolf, a researcher focusing on girls’ and women’s issues at the nonprofit National Council on Crime and Delinquency, said relatives and boyfriends often draw girls into gangs.

“Typically, they have a family member or a boyfriend already involved,” she said.

Wolf is in the process of launching the nation’s largest study to date of girls involved in gangs, with grant funding from the U.S. Department of Justice.

She and fellow researchers plan to interview more than 100 girls in Salinas, Los Angeles, Oakland, Richmond, Sacramento and other California cities.

Violence in the home also appears to be a major risk factor, Wolf said, especially for girls, who may join seeking safety and protection — even from their own home.

“They’re looking for (something) to be enveloped by,” she said. “And the gang is there.”

One young woman from Monterey County, who asked not to be named in this story, agreed that gang involvement often starts with romance.

“Like in any relationship, you’re going to show you’re loyal to your guy,” she said.

She was initiated into an allgirl Sureño gang in her teens. “Once a guy picks his true ‘ride or die,’ that girl is solid. Once a girl gets that title and gets introduced that way, she’s up higher now than a girl that’s just a party girl.”

She said the reasons young women get into gangs are as varied as the girls themselves.

Her own case was “generational,” with gang members in her immediate family.

Some girls get into the drugs, she said. Others crave respect. Some may even come from strict, well-off households but seek the excitement and danger of being around gangsters, she said.

“A lot of these guys put you on a pedestal. You get respect. But every group of (gang members), they also have their own group of girls who are disposable.”

She left her gang around 2000, she said, at a time when it was easier for a woman to walk away. These days, she said, she sees a lot of girls “15, 16 years old. They all date older guys who are in prison, guys in their 20s. They don’t even know what they’re getting into.”

Wolf said she hasn’t researched changes in gang policies, but agreed that it does seem harder for girls and women to get out of gangs than it used to be, and her study will look at successful “exit strategies.”

“One way out is that girls are able to leverage their caretaking roles,” she said. “They do seem to have an easier time (leaving) if they are mothers.”

Most men and women, she points out, simply outgrow their gangs when family and responsibilities take precedence, although there’s always a small group of what she calls “legacy gang members,” those who stay involved even as they age into their 20s, 30s and beyond.

She said most girls do not understand what they’re getting involved in when they join gangs.

“They feel like they’re valued and it turns out they’re really not valued at all . . . Kids find out they’re expendable.”

Headed for court

Eddie Rodriguez says law enforcement is now taking a closer look at women, as gang men increasingly target and court females they think will be useful.

“If anything, the gangs are using them more,” he said. “The wives and girlfriends are doing the gang’s work. In the past, guys may have said, ‘Carry my gun.’ Nowadays it’s a bit more covert — the women have good jobs and you wouldn’t think they’re gang-related.”

As for Rosa Martinez, loyalty to the gang lifestyle apparently won out over love.

Six years after the regiment’s attempt to kill her boyfriend Escobedo, police said she was still in the mix.

Several weeks ago, arrest warrants were issued for her on drug and auto theft charges under Operation Garlic Press. She was picked up earlier this month and remains in Santa Clara County jail in lieu of $25,000 bail.

The Central Coast task force that investigated Martinez, Huerta, Tigre and BJ was shut down in 2006 as the FBI took over the cases.

Escobedo survived his injuries and eventually testified against Tigre, who last year was sentenced to 55 years to life in prison.

Baby Joker – Oscar Cabrera, now missing

In March 2006, BJ disappeared the day after a Watsonville homicide in which he was the suspect, and he remains on Santa Cruz County’s most wanted list. Police learned he was later hiding in Mexico with Robert “Bubba” Hanrahan, a Nuestra Familia crew leader from Salinas who is now serving a 13-year prison term and was indicted this year on federal drug charges.

After Escobedo was shot, police learned that Carol Huerta had married her general, “Pinky” Hernandez, and later visited him in a Florence, Colo. supermax prison where the gang’s brass are now housed.

Last spring, Huerta was indicted on drug conspiracy charges. She faces life in federal prison.

Martinez has been ordered to appear in federal court on or before Nov. 3, the same day she’s scheduled to appear before a Santa Clara County judge.

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A deadly toll

Women have been regular targets of gang violence in Monterey County, but few cases have been solved.

 

Jan. 31, 2005: Crystal Morado, 20, of Salinas, was found shot dead in a car parked on Hecker Pass Road.

May 20, 2006: Tina Marie Peña, 23, of King City, was found shot multiple times on Wildhorse Road off of Highway 101.

Oct. 23, 2007: Two women, ages 21 and 25, were shot in the head in a Motel 6 room in Salinas. Amazingly, both survived their injuries. Sureño gang member Heriberto Ceja, 21, was named as a suspect and remains at large.

Dec. 5, 2009: Yliza Martinez and Veronica Gallegos, both 30, were found shot to death in a room at the Pueblo Inn in Greenfield. A 15-year-old boy was charged in the double homicide and police are still seeking Francisco Alejandro Tamayo, 18, as the alleged shooter.

Mar. 3, 2011: Greenfield resident Yessenia Ponce Chaidez, 25, was found shot and stabbed to death near a burning car in an industrial section of Salinas.

Mar. 7, 2011: Laurencia Martinez Hiracheta, 57, was fatally shot from behind while warming up her car in Soledad.

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Sources: Salinas, Soledad and Greenfield police departments and the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office

 

Musician convicted in drug case

mocoherald

Musician convicted in drug case

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~

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.

press

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.


Guns

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

stories

Print and online coverage of justice, youth violence, gangs, guns, and the FBI

crowd1
Crowd at Salinas crime scene | photo © Janjaap Dekker

JUSTICE: THE SYSTEM, THE CONCEPT, THE REALITY

From overcrowded prisons to life without parole for juveniles and problematic witness protection — our justice system offers plenty to write about.

The guns of Pacific Grove: Unraveling a police commander’s arms dealings | The Monterey Herald

The silent empire: the state’s largest for-profit jail health care provider | The Monterey Herald (funny how they change headlines on the web for search engine optimization)

Experts slam Monterey County Jail conditions | The Monterey Herald
(yes, they re-named our newspaper)

Series on prison mental health | The Monterey County Herald

Reasonable Doubt in a Cold Case | The Monterey County Herald

The Long Journey: Johnny Angel Martinez’ search for redemption | The Monterey County Herald


Down for Life series
| The Monterey County Herald  Day 1 Day 2Day 3
>>PDFs
Day 1 Day 2Day 3
Down for Life series | KAZU-fm  Part 1 Part 2Part 3

Multimedia: A Long Night’s Wait at Salinas Valley State Prison

Witness Protection Not a Guarantee | The Monterey County Herald
Murder Victims’ Families Find Solace | The Monterey County Herald

GANGS

Since 2002, I’ve reported on the Nuestra Familia and the law enforcement efforts to bring it down.

The NF is one of the nation’s most violent and sophisticated gangs, a drug-dealing mafia that for more than three decades has exerted powerful control over the West’s agricultural towns. In the Salinas Valley, second, third and now fourth generations of children are literally being born into this gang and raised to be criminals. My work chronicles the gang’s power and a community’s struggle to defeat it.

Nuestra Familia, Our Family | The PBS documentary
Our award-winning film about a father, a son, a gang and the FBI.

OPERATION VALLEY STAR STORIES

The FBI’s largest case against Nuestra Familia, with trials still underway.

The Operation Valley Star Archive — all stories

WOMEN, GIRLS AND GANGS

Girlfriends, wives and sisters are an integral — and often expendable — part of gang organizations.

Women Caught up in Gang Life | Monterey County Herald

Prison Gang Tied to Soledad Killings | Monterey County Herald

GANG VIOLENCE – SOLUTIONS

When people ask me how to end gangs, I usually say something useless like “end poverty first.” But there may be more immediate hope for stopping some of the killings. The Boston Ceasefire violence reduction strategy is gaining support and believers. I’m one of them.

Ceasefire: A series on the innovative program to stop gang shootings | Monterey County Herald

Reasons for Hope: Three journalists who report on the drug trade’s violence in the United States and Mexico compare notes during a peaceful pause | Nieman Reports Fall 2011

I also continuously cover solutions to gang and youth violence, as well as prison and reentry issues as my regular beat at The Monterey County Herald.

GUNS

In the world of gunrunning, money drives the engine. What starts with an illegal but booming worldwide arms trade ends with misery around the globe – including teen deaths in Northern California.

South Florida’s Elusive Arms Baron | Frontline/WORLD
The Guns of Opa-Locka | The Nation
Youths, Gangs and Guns | KQED-TV and Oakland Tribune

I also contributed reporting to these investigative projects:
Gun Land | NOW with Bill Moyers
Gun Runners | Frontline/WORLD

Critics: Terrorists Manipulate Loopholes in U.S. Gun Laws | NPR’s All Things Considered [ram audio]

EN ESPAÑOL

Gángster en un campo de lechugas  (Gangster in a Lettuce Field) | El Puercoespîn, Argentina May 2010

La guerra civil en California (The Civil War in California) | La Jornada, México, 3-part series, Dec. 2003–Jan. 2004

AND MORE…


High-flying Investor Goes Into Free Fall
| San Francisco Chronicle

Daniel Ellsberg: Whistleblowers wanted here | The Monterey County Herald

I also contributed reporting to these investigative projects:
Locked Down | American Radio Works
Gangs Thrive In Maximum Security | 60 Minutes