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Avenues Gang Members Meet the End of the Road 

But is Highland Park safe for blacks?

Wednesday, Aug 2 2006
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ALTHOUGH MEMBERS OF A LATINO street gang were convicted in federal court last Tuesday of committing a string of deadly hate crimes intended to drive blacks out of Highland Park, the predominantly Latino neighborhood just north of downtown is far from free of gang-fueled strife. Even as the trial was unfolding, another young man was shot at a party during a confrontation between gang members and a black youth.

The convictions of 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 the Aves 43 — marked the first use of a federal hate-crime statute against a street gang by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Sentencing for Cazares, Martinez and Saldana is scheduled for October 23. Avila is scheduled to be sentenced on November 20. The four are likely facing life sentences.

During the four-week trial in federal court in downtown Los Angeles, prosecutors painted a grim picture of Aves 43 gang members who, during a six-year campaign between 1995 and 2001, threatened, intimidated and beat African-Americans who dared to make Highland Park their home, and ultimately killed three black residents. Kenneth Kurry Wilson, 38, was shot to death by a van full of Avenues gang members in the early hours of Sunday morning on April 18, 1999, as he was attempting to park a Cadillac on Avenue 52, a tree-lined street just a short jog from Figueroa Street. The following year, Christopher Bowser, 28, was shot three times in the head while he was waiting at a bus stop. Bowser, who had lived in Highland Park with his mother since 1989, had been regularly chased down the street, threatened and, just eight days before his death, was beaten by the Aves 43 set. A third victim, 21-year-old Anthony Prudhomme, an aspiring music producer, was attacked in his bed and shot twice in the head.

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The federal jury deliberated just over two days before finding Saldana, Martinez, Cazares and Avila guilty of conspiring to interfere with the housing rights of black residents through threats and violence. Cazares, Martinez and Saldana were also found guilty of violating a federal hate-crime statute, which is based on the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, outlawing slavery, by killing Wilson because of his race and while he was using a public street. They were also found guilty of using a firearm. A fifth defendant, Merced Cambero, 27, who is alleged to have fired the shot that killed Wilson, is currently a fugitive and remains under indictment.

Prosecutors largely based their case on the testimony of two former Avenues gang members, Jose de la Cruz and Jesse Diaz, who claimed to be in the van on the night of Wilson’s murder along with the defendants. 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 sentence for the attempted murder of a police officer. Both men agreed to testify against their childhood chums in hopes of getting time knocked off their sentences.

The two former gangsters told the 12 jurors in shocking detail about meetings held at a neighborhood park to discuss the “infestation” of blacks in Highland Park, and random attacks, such as the beating of a homeless man who was seen walking with a Latino woman, an assault on a group of men playing basketball in Montecito Park, racial slurs directed at a mother and her daughter in a supermarket, and the beating of a black man who stopped to use a pay phone on the street.

During the trial, defense lawyers relentlessly questioned the credibility of Diaz and de la Cruz as well as the testimony of two law-enforcement officials. The defense also argued that the hate-crime statute was “unconstitutional” and that it was specifically designed to target not street crimes, but the bigotry that interfered with civil rights historically denied blacks in the Southern states.

Friends and family members of the victims voiced relief at the verdicts, saying that they wanted Highland Park to be a place where African-Americans can live in peace.

“My kids might have to move out there one day, and I hope it changes by then,” said Don Petrie, an elementary school friend and neighbor of Bowser’s who said that he and Bowser regularly escaped beatings, and had been shot at by the gang. “It sends a message that you don’t judge people by the color of their skin. They let me know every other day that they didn’t want me in the neighborhood.”

Tuesday’s conviction by no means signals an end to the violence in Highland Park. On July 22, when the federal hate-crime trial was already under way, a 17-year-old graduate of Lincoln High School was shot to death after attending a party on Avenue 40 — Aves 43 gang territory. Police are trying to determine whether members of the Aves 43 were involved in the slaying, which followed a confrontation between gang members and an African-American teen during a party of 100 or so mostly high school students. According to law-enforcement sources, gang members confronted the African-American teen, who was singing, and told him to “shut the fuck up.”

The victim in the shooting, Zelvin Reyes, 17, who is Latino, was leaving the party when a second confrontation occurred between gang members and the African-American teen and other partygoers. One of the gang members pulled out a gun. Multiple shots were fired. Investigators said this week that they do not know whether race was a factor in the confrontation that led up to the killing. The night of violence left one teen dead and a second teenager wounded. No one has been arrested in connection with the slaying.

One law-enforcement source, who asked for anonymity because of a prohibition on speaking to the media, said he fears that the conviction will lead the public to wrongly conclude that racial harassment no longer occurs in Highland Park. After reviewing the details of the July 22 shooting, the source voiced fears that the Avenues “have done it again.”

“There is still a number of Avenues that need to be removed from the area so everyone in the area of every color can be safe,” the law-enforcement official said. ?

Reach the writer at cpelisek@laweekly.com

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