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.”
“They wanted all blacks out of the neighborhood, not just African-American men, not just African-American gang members but all African-American women and children,” said Bustamante.
The federal hate-crime trial also involves the murder of two other black men, Christopher Bowser and Anthony Prudhomme, who were both killed in 2000. Cazares, Cambero, Martinez and Saldana are charged with violating a federal hate-crime statute, which is based on the 13th Amendment to the Constitution outlawing slavery, by allegedly killing Wilson because of his race, and while he was on a public street. (Civil rights laws say everyone has the right to use public streets without the threat of violence.) The four defendants are also charged with using a firearm. They and Avila face conspiracy charges for allegedly interfering with the housing rights of black residents in Highland Park through violence and threats.
In the June 28 opening statements, deputy federal public defender Reuven Cohen accused the government of turning the murders into a “conspiracy” instead of a common street crime. And he said Diaz and de la Cruz repeatedly told lies that the detectives and prosecutors fell for. Diaz, he claimed, wasn’t even present during the Wilson murder. “This indictment was meant to grab headlines,” said Manuel Araujo, co-deputy federal public defender. “It is based on fiction.”
Defense attorneys also argued that the statute was “unconstitutional” and that it was specifically designed to target not street crimes, but the bigotry that interfered with the civil rights historically denied blacks in the Southern states.
Porfirio “Dreamer” Avila is currently serving life without the possibility of parole in state prison for his role in the 2000 killings. Except for Avila and “Lucky” Saldana, who is in prison for unrelated murder charges, the remaining defendants, who were allegedly members of one of the most active and violent cliques of the Avenues, face life terms in federal prison if convicted.
It is the first time that the U.S. Attorney’s Office has used the hate-crime statute against a street gang. It has been used in the past to prosecute a black teenager for his role in the murder of an Orthodox Jew, and against a group of neo-Nazi skinheads who terrorized blacks and Hispanics in a Montana park.
More hate-crime cases are on the horizon for the Avenues. Avenues member Freddy Bailon, 24, goes on trial in Los Angeles County District Court for the racially motivated attempted murder of a black man in Highland Park in 2005.
The Avenues take their name from the numbered corridors that slice through Figueroa Street, Highland Park’s bustling main drag, home to mom-and-pop grocery stores, check-cashing businesses, nail salons, swap meets, car washes, fast-food joints and a smattering of restaurants, galleries and nightclubs. Along the five-mile-long boulevard, 1910s historic Craftsman homes and bungalows and newly built luxury apartments sit just a stone’s throw from congested pockets of rent-subsidized apartments and ramshackle homes with overgrown lawns. It has been the home of the Avenues gang since the 1950s.
Members sport gang tattoos that include a bullet-pierced skull with a fedora, or the letters LA, AVES, A or Avenidos. When the Mexican Mafia brought drugs into the mix in the 1980s, the Avenues, which started as a club, increased their penchant for violence.
In the early 1990s, the police blamed the Avenues for more than half of the 200-plus homicides in the northeast L.A. neighborhoods of Highland Park, Glassell Park, Cypress Park and Eagle Rock. Three-year-old Stephanie Kuhen’s murder by gang members, who fired on her family’s car as her lost stepfather tried to turn around on a dead-end street, intensified police efforts to rid the neighborhood of the 800-member gang.
The Avenues also drew the attention of federal authorities alarmed by the Mexican Mafia’s bid to extend the group’s influence outside of California’s prisons. The first major law-enforcement crackdown came when Avenues boss and Mexican Mafia member Alex “Pee Wee” Aguirre was sentenced to a life term in 1997. It was soon followed by a gang injunction by the City Attorney’s Office and a series of trials that took a handful of Avenues members off the streets.
During the ’90s, more blacks were moving into Highland Park because of the availability of affordable housing.
“They [Avenues members] hated the increase in the black population,” said LAPD Lieutenant Bob Lopez from the witness box. “It was changing the makeup in the neighborhood and they weren’t happy with it.”
At the same time, Avenues gang members were hearing from the Mexican Mafia that they had to take care of the blacks. “They were told to kill any ‘nigger’ on sight and that all blacks had a ‘green light’ on them,” wrote FBI agent Jerry Fradella in a report, after interviewing a former Avenues member in 2005. “Their policy became one that they were to kill any blacks, or to beat their ‘asses’ if they could not kill them at the time. An Avenues member who did not follow this policy would get ‘court checked,’ slang for an ass whipping.”
Meetings to discuss the “infestation” of blacks and how the Avenues had to get rid of them were held, off and on, in a park near a local recreation center, Diaz testified.
“It was a Hispanic neighborhood,” he said. “We didn’t want them making our neighborhood look like South-Central. If you see them, fuck them up. Whatever it would take to get them out of the neighborhood. We wrote ‘fuck niggers’ on the wall around places where black people lived to send a message.”
Lopez said that police began to see an increase in crimes and racial graffiti like “Niggers Go Home” carried out by the Avenues. A handful of black residents and at least one police officer who testified bore the brunt of the gang’s racial hatred, according to federal prosecutors. Celeste Shaffer, a plant manager with the Los Angeles Unified School District, said that she was subjected to racial slurs, chased regularly and told to move out of Highland Park repeatedly in the mid-’90s. She moved out in 1996 because she was fearful “that my sons would be killed by the Avenues.” Dagan Wallace, a retail-theft investigator who lived in Highland Park in 1999, told jurors that he had a gun pointed at his head by Avenues members while he was listening to music in his backyard. On another occasion, he told the court that Avenues members called him “monkey” and warned him not to tag on their walls.
Jimmie Israel, 28, who lived on Avenue 39, testified that the Avenues regularly cut into his walkie-talkie frequency and threatened to burn his house down if he didn’t move out. In 2000, Israel filed a complaint with the police after his sister was beaten up and the Avenues threatened him with a box cutter. LAPD officer Young Honor told jurors one of the suspects called him “nigger” when he investigated the attack.
“It was quite brazen,” he said from the witness box. “We went around the corner to regroup and called for backup. We told him to line up against the fence and told him to face the house and spread his legs. He said, ‘Fuck you, nigger.’ In his body language he challenged me to a fight. His friends were laughing and it was like energy to them. He was like Mr. Big Shot.”
Highland Park also became the playground for a ruthless game in which the Avenues competed against another clique to run as many blacks out of the area as they could, Diaz said.
During this period, Cambero, Martinez, Avila, Saldana and Cazares were members of the Tiny Locos, the youngest clique of the Aves 43. Most of the group were childhood chums. Saldana and Martinez, who wears a tattoo on the back of his head that reads 43 Kills for Thrills, grew up together on the same street. According to Diaz, Martinez called the shots. Cambero was considered the most prolific tagger of the group. Cazares, who lived in Fillmore, hung out in Highland Park on the weekends. Saldana was nicknamed “Lucky” because he constantly outran the police. His former girlfriend testified that he regularly carried a 9 mm in his waistband.
De la Cruz began hanging around the Aves 43 at the end of 1998. They went on missions two or three times a week, he said. Their equipment included scanners and walkie-talkies.
“They [Aves 43] were doing more stuff,” said de la Cruz. “More gangbanging. Instead of hanging out with girls, they were putting in work for the neighborhood.”
Dewayne Williams and his roommates were in the living room of their three-bedroom apartment when they heard the eight shots that broke through the night back in April of 1999. They hit the floor before looking out onto the street. The Cadillac had crashed into a van. The roommates ran down to the street and saw Wilson slumped over the driver’s seat. He was trying to speak.
“It sounded like ‘help me, help me,’” testified a frail and grief-stricken Williams. “I was freaked out. I was running down the street hollering. He took care of his mother in San Bernardino. He was afraid to come to L.A. He was always in San Bernardino. That’s all he knew, was San Bernardino.”
The six Avenues gang members in the van heard the police response to the shots over the scanner. They spoke briefly about their deadly rampage, according to de la Cruz, who testified that Cambero was the first one out of the van, firing his .357. The bullet shattered the passenger window and entered Wilson’s neck. De la Cruz, armed with the shotgun, walked alongside the car while firing into the side and shattering the back window. Saldana shot last, firing his 9 mm twice. According to de la Cruz, Martinez chastised Saldana for “burning” the gun because Wilson was already dead and the police could run ballistic tests on the shell casings. “Lucky said, ‘Fuck it,’” recalled de la Cruz.
Cambero, de la Cruz, Diaz and Saldana were dropped off a few miles from the scene. Cazares and Martinez drove off to dump the van. While they were hiding out, the four gangsters heard gunfire and ran to see what was going on. Martinez and Cazares mistakenly got into a shootout with a group of older Avenues members they believed were from the Dogtown gang. The gangsters spent the next few hours hiding in backyards to dodge the police, according to de la Cruz.
The Avenues might have continued their murder spree unabated, if not for another bloody twist of fate. On February 21, 1999, two months before Wilson’s murder, 21-year-old Jaime Cerda and his brother Rene were shot and killed while they were passengers in a car. White Fence gang member Saul Audelo was later arrested for their murder. Audelo told Hollenbeck Division detectives that he sold the murder weapon, a 9 mm semiautomatic, to Saldana for $250. The detectives searched Saldana’s home on May 9, looking for the gun. No weapon was recovered but Saldana admitted to detectives that he had purchased the gun from Audelo and said he got rid of it before Wilson’s murder. At the time, detectives were merely looking for the Cerda murder weapon and hadn’t connected it to the Wilson murder, which was being handled by Northeast Division detectives. Detectives there didn’t have a break in the case for months, until ballistic testing revealed that the 9 mm bullet casings found at the Wilson crime scene matched those found at Cerda’s murder scene.
Seven months after Saldana was questioned about the gun, in December of 1999, Diaz, who was incarcerated in Wasco State Prison for the attempted murder of an LAPD officer and her three friends, told the detectives about his role in the killing of a black man, Wilson, on Avenue 52. During the interview, Diaz didn’t mention Martinez or Cazares, the driver and one of the lookouts respectively.
Detectives picked up de la Cruz and Saldana two months later, on February 13, 2000. Separately, Saldana and de la Cruz were asked to listen to Diaz’s taped confession. Saldana denied any involvement in the murder. But de la Cruz, who was 18 at the time, folded after he heard the tape and was told by police that Saldana had also confessed. De la Cruz, who was arrested that same day, also didn’t implicate Martinez or Cazares in the crime. Saldana didn’t confess, and he maintained that he wasn’t there. Having failed to recover the gun that would have connected him to the murder, police were forced to release him. (In 2003, however, de la Cruz and Diaz did implicate Martinez and Cazares to the FBI.)
In October of 2000 — more than a year and a half after Wilson’s murder — LAPD officer Fernando Carrasco responded to a 911 call to the Highland Park home of Angel Brown. Brown told the officer that her 28-year-old son Christopher Bowser had been attacked and robbed while he was waiting at a bus stop on Figueroa Street. He had abrasions on the right side of his face. Reluctantly, Bowser told the officer that two Hispanic men beat him up and stole his necklace. He also admitted that he knew one of his attackers to be an Avenues gang member. He refused to press charges, though, explaining that he feared retaliation.
It wasn’t the fist time Bowser had run-ins with the Avenues since he moved into Highland Park with his mother in 1989. He had been regularly chased down the street, threatened and, on at least one occasion, beaten by members of the Aves 43 set, according to Don Petrie, a friend of Bowser’s since elementary school who lived across the street from Bowser and his mother. Petrie said that both he and Bowser regularly escaped beatings, had been shot at, almost run over and had bottles thrown at them by the gang. Petrie said that gang members would drive up and down their block looking for the two.
Petrie admitted on the stand that he was a former member of the Crips gang, but said the attacks had nothing to do with his gang affiliation. “It was a black issue,” he said. “It never was a gang issue. I never had any problem with any Hispanic gangs except the Avenues. When I was active there were Latino gangs in my area and we didn’t have any problems. No rivalry.” A defense attorney rebutted Petrie’s account in his closing argument, saying that the alleged conflicts were indeed gang-related and that Petrie’s testimony was colored by his anger over his friend’s death.
A month after the attack at the bus stop, Bowser filed a complaint when his attacker drove by his house and pointed a gun at him. Martinez, the man Diaz described as the shot caller in the van on the night of Wilson’s murder, and one of the more respected members of the Aves 43, was arrested on December 3, 2000, for the bus-stop robbery of Bowser. Eight days later, Bowser was shot three times in the head at the same bus stop. The father of four died instantly. Police believed that Martinez called the hit on Bowser from jail.
“He walked around our neighborhood like it was his neighborhood,” said Diaz. “Like it was his neighborhood instead of the Avenues neighborhood. It was how he walked. He would walk around with a boom box playing rap music. That doesn’t happen in our neighborhood. Black people walking around like they own the place.”
At the same time, detectives were investigating the murder of another black man that occurred a month earlier. Student and aspiring music producer Anthony Prudhomme, 21, had just moved into a hillside basement apartment in Highland Park. According to police accounts, at around 2 a.m., two men broke into his apartment and shot him twice, using a pillow to muffle the sound. The gunmen escaped in a van as patrol cars pulled up.
Nearly a year later, an informant told police that a fellow gang member from the Avenues said he and another gangster had done the “murder on the hill.” On December 5, 2001, with the aid of the informant’s statement, Avila was arrested for the murder of Prudhomme. Avila was later accused of murdering Bowser, when ballistics evidence found that the same gun was used in both Prudhomme’s and Bowser’s murders. Avila was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for the two murders. His accomplice was never charged.
In federal court last week, prosecutors aired a jailhouse phone call between Avila and another Avenues member shortly after Bowser’s murder, in which Avila boasted that he and other Avenues members, including Martinez, had been “fucking up” Bowser for weeks. “Yeah,” he said. “That fool is fucking gone, eh.”?
Martinez’s attorney, Sonia Chahin, said that portion of the recording was taken out of context. “This case is about that all Avenues have a policy of running black people out of the neighborhood. It is simply not the case.”?