Since the December indictment and pursuant raid that imprisioned 14 men under federal RICO charges, media coverage has labelled the case one of “Murder, Kidnapping, and Arson.”
This shorthand is convenient, but evidence—and more frequently, a lack thereof—emerging in the trial may discredit that characterization.
In a move that surprised federal prosecutors, public defense attorney Michael Patrick filed a motion Friday to strike recordings alleged to contain a murder threat made by Jorge Cornell, effectively dropping the allegation from the case.
Hundreds of hours of audio surveillance was taken José Lugo, a paid FBI informant, who had been impersonating a Latin King since 2008, working to incriminate NC ALKQN members. According to an FBI-prepared transcript of one of those recordings, Cornell is alleged to have said he killed a member of MS-13.
But no evidence of this murder has ever been presented by the prosecuting attorneys in this RICO case, nor by any other law enforcement officials in a local-level jurisdiction. In fact, there is no evidence of this event ever taking place known to the court, except in the alleged recording and the original indictment. Given this absence, Patrick was able to convince the court that the statement should not be presented to the jury.
Under federal rule 403-b, the court may exclude evidence if its value is substantially outweighed by a danger of unfair prejudice, misleading the jury, undue delay, wasting time, or other improprieties. Patrick successfully showed the statement would be unduly prejudicial.
Robert A.J. Lang, Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina, scrambled for a response to Patrick’s motion, but was unable to produce any substantive objection, and Judge James A. Beaty, Jr., allowed it.
Lang was visibly flustered by the event. During much of the trial Friday, Lang allowed Dixon to take the lead questioning witnesses, while he pored over a spread of texts on his desk. Any strategy to reintroduce the alleged statement has yet to surface, but Lang did oversee the authorization of a Seal of Secrecy on hundreds of pages of public documents, interfering with information gathering by the defense team that could lead to more exonerating data.
It is unclear whether the documents sealed by the government pertain to any arson or kidnapping. But at least one of the documents recovered before the seal suggests that officers with the GPD recorded a statement by a man named Gorge [sic] Cardenas who said he had been sent to “get close to” and “gather information” on Jorge Cornell. He stated repeatedly that Cornell’s “days were numbered” and that he was about to be “taken out.” Mr. Cardenas was not arrested, and he was apparently not questioned concerning the Aug. 2008 shooting of Cornell.
Additionally, a motion submitted Oct. 29th by Michael Patrick states that District Attorney Lang had been told by Greensboro Police Department (GPD) Offficer P. Caffey, a potential witness, that “one of the potential defense witnesses on a previous occasion had told her that he had shot Jorge Cornell on Aug. 10, 2008.” Lang told Patrick this allegation has been referred to Internal Affairs of the GPD for further investigation.
Inhumane negligence in furtherance of disrupting perceived “gang activity” has been a policy of the GPD in the past: in 2008, Samuel Velasquez spent more than five months in prison for a murder he couldn’t possibly have committed. Evidence was quickly produced that he was at work during the alleged crime, and sworn coworker testimony, as well as time-stubs proving his alibi, were ignored.
GPD Officer A.J. Blake said he was aware of the exonerating evidence, but chose not to move on it swiftly in order to put pressure on Velasquez. This, he thought, might give the GPD some leverage in further dismantling the rampant gang problem Lang saw represented by Velasquez’s Latin Kings.
Another instance of this “gang problem” was an arson Cornell was alleged to have ordered in 2010. The circumstances surrounding the arson were made suspect, although the supposed crime wasn’t dismissed outright, as the claim about murder was. José Lugo, the informant, was cross-examined by Brian Aus, Russell Kilfoil’s public defender.
During his testimony, Lugo admitted to teaching ALKQN members how to make firebombs using gasoline, glass bottles and rags; he denies ever having actually used one himself. Lugo also admitted to encouraging the Kings to use the firebombs to commit an arson, and he conceded that Kilfoil advised those same Kings against committing the act.
According to federal law, the second person in a conspiracy cannot be an undercover agent or government informant (see United States v. Duff, 76 F,3d 122; 7th Cir. 1996). Inasmuch as Lugo was instrumental in the arson plot, that overt act stands to be invalidated as well.
Another “overt act” alleged in the indictment is a kidnapping said to involve Jason Yates and Irvin Vasquez.
Yates was assigned a new, separate trial date after it became evident that he had not spoken to his lawyer more than once during the 10 months he was imprisoned after the raid. No information or evidence concerning the alleged kidnapping has been presented yet.
It has been the position of the defense attorneys that Yates was responsible for a rift in the NC Latin Kings. Representing a distinct faction of Latin Kings hailing from Chicago, Yates had an energetic criminal proclivity that caused clashes between he and Cornell, according to testimony from Jesús Alvarenga, a former Latin King. Bellow is another of the ALKQN’s discontents who became a confidential informant for the FBI around 2008. He left the group sometime in 2009.
Cornell’s civic involvement — his work to broker a gang peace treaty, his campaign for Greensboro City Council, his service on the Guilford County School Safety Comittee — was minimized by prosecuting attorneys. But Bellow contended that his understanding of the Latin Kings included a deep structural disconnect: Chicago transplants seemed interested in criminal organizing, whereas Cornell, of New York, was interested in creating unity, righteousness, and empowering Latinos.
While it doesn’t appear that the indictment is duplicitous (and subject to dismissal) as it stands now, the disconnect suggests a willful imprecision on the part of the government in discerning how deep geographical and ideological rifts within the broad grouping of “Latin Kings” has played out at local levels.
As of Friday, two of the cooperating witnesses had sided with Cornell until the raid arrests, after which they took plea agreements in hopes of reducing their sentences. Each of the other seven informants who have testified against the co-defendants has made an agreement with the government for an incentive in exchange for their testimony. Some were promised immunity from alleged crimes they say they participated in, some were paid hundreds of dollars for information gathering.
According to his testimony, José Lugo made more than $14,000 in the course of his work wearing recording devices for the FBI and catalyzing criminal activity and discord within the group. On cross-examination, he claimed to have crafted an elaborate criminal persona to deceive the NC ALKQN. He emphatically testified to being a successful liar when questioned by Scott Holmes, who represents Ernesto Wilson in the case. He also admitted to having used his position as an informant to evade conviction for other crimes he committed while working for the FBI. Additionally, Lugo said he hopes to have the process of earning his citizenship eased by his work with the government on this case.
Frequently, the testimony of one cooperating witness or informant contradicts that of another.
For example, Cornell’s presence at a Hooters restaurant after the shooting at the Maplewood apartments differs between Anthony Vasquez, José Argomaniz, and Marcelo Ysrael Perez, all of whom allegedly were there. Vasquez contends that Cornell attended the meeting and commended Argomaniz for his work. Argomaniz testified to a federal grand jury that Cornell was not at the Hooters. But during trial, Argomaniz said “I’m positive Jay was there that day,” and added that he, Jason Yates, and Irvin Vasquez were there. Perez said Cornell definitely wasn’t there — Yates took Perez to the restaurant after Cornell refused to let him enter Cornell’s home, he said. But Perez claims Cornell ordered the shooting, which he admitted to carrying out.
Vasquez was kicked out of the NC ALKQN in 2009. He was convicted of three felony assaults before then and another felony in 2011. He said the charges had to do with personal disputes and weren’t in furtherance of the Latin Kings as a criminal enterprise. He was paid $2,500 for information he provided to the FBI (which he began doing in Nov. 2008), and also testified that he hoped to have these charges reduced or dismissed as an incentive for his testimony.
The man Perez shot, Rojelio Lopez, said he had no gang affiliations and was going to his door when he saw a group of people walked up who he thought were friends. Lopez suffered a shotgun wound that was nonfatal. Perez claimed he positively identified him as an MS-13 member dressed in gang colors who he recognized from a fight earlier that day. Perez also admitted to having a pending felony when he was tapped to become an informant, and has similar hopes of reducing or dropping that charge through his cooperation.
Discrepancies in details sometimes arise within the course of a single cooperating witness’s testimony. José Lugo testified that he never received anything for his assistance to the FBI in their investigation. Lugo also claimed to have never committed any crimes outside of those sanctioned by the FBI to further his infiltration, but later testified to shoplifting, selling marijuana, and assaulting a fellow ALKQN member during his work as an informant.
Lugo also had extreme difficulty with his memory. When asked about the date of an alleged crime, he said he was unable to recall. When the cross-examining attorney asked him if it occurred before or after the birth of his child, he said he could not recall the date the child was born.
“I had to do a lot of lying, manipulating, and conniving to get the information that I got,” Lugo said.
During a recess, FBI Special Agent Doug Rentz and Safe Streets Task Force Officer Chris Lowes attempted to coach Lugo and encourage some finesse. “You can not do that again,” Lowes said in hushed tones to an aloof Lugo, presumably in reference to his irreverent, jocular, and rude attidtude during testimony. “Just…try to think of it like church.”
Trial wrapped up Friday with a video of Cornell interceding on the behalf of Wesley Williams when GPD Officer Roman Watkins attempted to tell him to stop “throwing gang symbols.”
This is the video prosecutors played in court.
One member of the defense team said it was puzzling to gather how the prosecution intended to use this footage as damning evidence. After the video was shown, The defense team took advantage of their cross-examination opportunities to begin exposing some unsavory behavior on the part of Watkins, who was a leader of GPD’s Gang Unit at the time. It appears Watkins may have aggressively avoided protocol in some of the arrests mentioned in the indictment and misquoted defendants in custody in furtherance of his anti-criminal enterprise.
Trial resumes next Tuesday at 9:30 a.m.