By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
The three African-American men had just spent another evening at the Lodge, a popular gay bar in North Hollywood. It had become a ritual for 38-year-old Kenneth Kurry Wilson, his nephew, Dewayne Williams, 29, and their friend Frank Eubanks, ever since Williams moved into Highland Park, the predominantly Latino neighborhood just a jog north on Figueroa from downtown. Wilson, dressed in a yellow shirt, black jeans and his trademark black boots, was the designated driver. By the time the three men pulled up in front of Williams’ place in a two-story apartment building on Avenue 52, it was around 3:30 a.m. on a Sunday. By then, Williams was passed out drunk in the back seat of the car. Wilson went to park their ride, a gold ’84 Fleetwood Cadillac, while his nephew’s roommates helped Williams up the stairs and into his apartment.
While Wilson scoured Avenue 52 for a spot, six Avenues gang members in a stolen van were winding down an evening of looking for rival gangsters who were “slipping” — or letting their guard down. The gangsters wound their way through the narrow streets of Highland Park, Cypress Park and Dogtown gang territory, crossing out other gang tags and spray-painting “Aves” and “Avenidas” along the way. That night they were on a “mission,” so they wore gloves, dark clothing and beanies. Their scanner was programmed to the Los Angeles Police Department’s Northeast Division frequency so they would know about any police cruisers patrolling the area. The gangsters were carrying a .357 revolver, a 9 mm semiautomatic and a 12-gauge shotgun.
They spotted Wilson driving the Cadillac as they made their way down Avenue 52. They watched Wilson make a U-turn and slow down to park. The driver said to his friends: “Hey, wanna kill a nigger?”
Little else was said except “Fuck it.” That’s the scene as described by Jose de la Cruz, a former Avenues gang member, who testified this month in federal court that he and two other gangsters then jumped out of the van and ran toward the Cadillac. All three men opened fire, blowing out the Cadillac’s back and side windows, and one of its tires. A single bullet entered the back of Wilson’s neck, severing his carotid artery and lodging near his throat. He died within minutes.
“He dropped,” said de la Cruz about Wilson’s murder, on April 18, 1999. “He just stopped moving.”
De la Cruz and another Avenues gangster, Jesse Diaz, were two of the key witnesses to testify in the ongoing hate-crime trial in federal court in downtown Los Angeles. Federal prosecutors alleged that Gilbert “Lucky” Saldana, 27, Alejandro “Bird” Martinez, 29, Fernando “Sneaky” Cazares, 26, and Porfirio “Dreamer” Avila, 31 — all members of the Avenues gang clique known as Aves 43 — agreed to kill in order to run black people out of Highland Park. Another defendant, Merced “Shadow” Cambero, 28, is a fugitive. The jury should begin deliberations this week.
Both de la Cruz and Diaz claimed that they were in the van on the night of Wilson’s murder along with the defendants — testimony their defense attorneys disputed. De La Cruz is currently serving a 45-year sentence in state prison for his role in Wilson’s slaying. Diaz is serving a 20-year state sentence for the attempted murder of a police officer. Both men agreed to testify against their childhood chums in the hope that they would get time knocked off their sentences.
“They are not choirboys,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Alex Bustamante about de la Cruz and Diaz, who were both shackled to the witness box. “They are in jail for violent crimes. They are not testifying out of the goodness of their hearts. They have agreements with the government.”
In 2003, Diaz and de la Cruz were contacted by the FBI, who were investigating the possibility of bringing hate-crime charges against the Aves 43 after local law enforcement informed federal authorities about a rash of hate-crime-related incidents. (See Pelisek’s related story, “Avenues of Death,” at laweekly.com.) The two men agreed to cooperate if the government helped them in their efforts to have their sentences reduced. Prosecutors agreed to send letters to Diaz and de la Cruz’s state sentencing judges.
In 2004, federal authorities indicted Saldana, Cazares, Martinez and Cambero on federal weapons and civil rights charges. On November 16, 2005, Avila was added to the list of those federally indicted. While on the lam, Cambero was arrested under a false name by Ventura law-enforcement officials but was let go accidentally. On another occasion, police believe they chased him over a fence in Highland Park.
In addition to de la Cruz and Diaz’s testimonies, the 12 jurors heard from black residents of Highland Park who said that they had been harassed, attacked and subjected to racial slurs by the Aves 43. These allegations, which occurred between 1995 and 2001, included the attempted murder of a homeless man, racial slurs directed at a girl in a supermarket and a black police officer, and the drawing of chalk outlines of human bodies in the driveway of a black resident’s home. Other black residents were repeatedly told to move out of the Highland Park neighborhood and called racial slurs like “nigger” and “mayate.”
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