Sorry, Wrong Gangster?
“’Curiouser and curiouser!’ Cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English). ’Now I’m opening out like the largest telescope that ever was! Good-bye, feet!’ (for when she looked down at her feet they seemed to be almost out of sight, they were getting so far off).
Lewis Carroll, Alice In Wonderland.
Pregnant MS-13 Gangster Brenda Paz Was Slashed to Death on the Banks of the Shenandoah River on the Morning of July 13, 2003 for "Ratting" on Fellow Gangsters
Here is a curious web of events, the common thread of which is one Alex Sanchez, aka “Rebelde.”
Sanchez is the putative “anti-gang activist” whom the government accused in a racketeering (RICO) indictment handed up in June 2009 by a federal grand jury in Los Angeles of being a fraud — acting in secret as a “shot-caller” while posing in public as the Mother Teresa of the Latino gang world. (For details of the case, start here, and here and follow links).
Let us, gentle reader, go forth and explore this web together.
A horrific murder — typical of the work of members of the bloodthirsty transnational Latino gang, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) — was committed the morning of July 13, 2003.
On the banks of the gently flowing and historic Shenandoah River in Virgina, pregnant gangster Brenda Paz was brutally slashed to death by two of her fellow gangsters. One of them, Ismael Juarez Cisneros, later told investigators, “I loved her with all my heart.” Skeptics might be forgiven for thinking Cisneros — a deported and feloniously re-entered illegal alien from Mexico — had a curious manner of showing his affection.
“Ratting out” her fellow gangsters to federal authorities and a host of state and local police. Paz was scheduled to testify in a federal murder trial, in which she was prepared to implicate as homicidal mastermind a Virginia-based MS-13 shot-caller, Denis “Conejo” (Rabbit) Rivera — not incidentally one of her former lovers.
[The sordid details of Brenda Paz’s life and murder are summarized in my book, No Boundaries: Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement (University of Michigan Press, 2009). No Boundaries also examines the genesis of MS-13 within the context of the broader history of Latino street gangs generally. Those interested in a book more narrowly focused specifically on Paz’s tumultuous life and tragic death should read Samuel Logan’s This is for the Mara Salvatrucha (New York: Hyperion 2009).]
In a December 2005 piece on the Paz murder, “The Fight Against MS-13,” the CBS 60 Minutes television program summed up the relevant events:
Not only does MS-13 conduct investigations of its own, but like a corporate organization, most cliques have regular meetings where they discuss recruiting, money and murder – what they call a “greenlight.”
According to witnesses, the gang took a unanimous vote in a hotel that Brenda should be assassinated. The next morning, she was lured away on a fishing trip with her new boyfriend, Oscar Grande, and her friend, Ismael Cisneros.
A former MS-13 member who is now in jail on an ammunition possession charge and asked 60 Minutes not to use his name, went with them.
“I was facing the river. You know, I was watching, I was enjoying the view. Was summertime. It was nice place. And they was behind me fixing the fishing pole. And I turn my face. I see for couple seconds that she was get stabbing. And I freak out and I run away,” he recalled.
Asked to confirm if he saw the stabbing of Brenda Paz, he answered “Yes.”
She was stabbed by her boyfriend Oscar Grande and Ismael Cisneros, who later confessed. He said she had called out “Why?” “Because you’re a rat” she was told. They stabbed her approximately 13 times.
MS-13 Gangster Ismael Cisneros Claimed He "Loved" Paz, Whom He Was Convicted of Slashing to Death
Court records and other news reporting make clear beyond doubt that the anonymous “former MS-13” gangster quoted on the 60 Minutes program was one Oscar Garcia-Orellana. Garcia had either somehow slipped between the cracks and evaded a 1998 deportation order, or feloniously re-entered the United States after having been deported to El Salvador.
Garcia was the only defendant in the 2005 Paz murder case trial to take the stand. Prosecutors claimed that he held a rope around Paz’s neck while the other two men slashed the life out of her and her unborn child. Garcia admitted that he had been present at the time of the slaughter, but claimed that he did not know in advance that Cisneros and Grande planned to kill her. He testified that instead of trying to save Paz, he had acted like a coward and run away when they started slashing her. His lawyers maintained that although he had once been an active member of MS-13, he had drifted away from the gang.
One of the defense witnesses for Garcia was — the aforesaid “anti-gang activist” Alex “Rebelde” Sanchez.
The Expert Witness for the Defense
Here is an excerpt from the report of the Paz murder trial in the May 4, 2005 edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper:
Jurors also heard from Alex Sanchez, a gang expert from Los Angeles and a former MS-13 member. He explained that many young people join gangs like MS-13 to mitigate abuse or neglect at home.
“They feel a sense of knowing that a bigger group will stand up for them, that they are not alone,” he said.
Sanchez also said most older gang members fall away from MS-13 once they reach their 30s, when younger members take leadership roles. His comments dovetailed with the assertions of Garcia’s lawyers, who claim he was a part-time gang member who was not involved in MS-13’s decision to kill Paz.
“Tom Diaz has worn out some shoe leather—much like a good detective—in gathering facts, not myths or urban legend. “
—Chris Swecker, Former Assistant Director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division.
“Few people know more about the subject than Tom Diaz and no single book tells the whole story better than No Boundaries. If you really want to know what organized crime in America looks like today, then read this alarming book.”
—Rocky Delgadillo, former City Attorney of Los Angeles
Order No Boundaries from Amazon.com
Sorry, Wrong Member
But Alex Sanchez was by far not the only help Oscar Garcia got.
More important was a huge screw-up, belatedly admitted by government prosecutors. Here is an excerpt from the May 11, 2005 edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch (which, it ought to be noted, cleaned the Washington Post’s clock on the coverage of this case) detailing the blunder:
Lawyer Alexander Levay, representing 32-year-old Oscar Garcia-Orellana, charged that government lawyers manipulated evidence and pursued conspiracy charges against Garcia even after prosecutors recognized their indictment against him was seriously flawed.
“If we can’t count on the government to play fair and by the rules, then each of us are a little less free,” Levay said.
At issue are allegations central to prosecutors’ contention that Garcia conspired with the accused mastermind of the plot to kill Paz, 21-year-old Denis “Conejo” Rivera. At the outset of the case, prosecutors said a taped telephone call between Garcia and Rivera — in which Garcia purportedly informed Rivera that Paz was dead — would prove Garcia’s guilt.
But prosecutors were forced to abandon that assertion after Garcia’s lawyers showed that it was not the defendant’s voice on the call. Rather, Rivera apparently was talking about the Paz murder with another gang member, Napoleon Hernandez, who shares the same nickname as Garcia, “Gato.” Hernandez has been deported.
Prosecutors acknowledged their mistake earlier in the case. Out of the presence of the jury, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ronald L. Walutes Jr. offered to withdraw the phone-call allegation from the indictment. But Garcia’s defense lawyers refused, hoping to show to the jury that the prosecution misstep made their entire case against Garcia suspect.
Levay said prosecutors had reason last year to suspect that they had the wrong Gato, but chose not to pursue the evidence.
“It didn’t fit their little scenario of the case, so they buried it,” Levay said. “The fact that they would mislead you into believing that the Gato on the phone was my client should be enough to find him not guilty.”
Levay’s attack on the prosecution case was part of a defense strategy to differentiate him from his fellow defendants.
“The indictment lumps everyone together, but the evidence distinguishes them again and again,” he said.
Garcia walked — but right into the arms of federal agents, who arrested him on another felony charge of being illegally in possession of ammunition (by reason of his immigration status). According to federal court records, he took a plea and was sentenced to a year and a day. He has since presumably been deported to his native El Salvador [although the trail grows cold in official records, one might justifiably assume that the government kept track of him this time.]
His Other Left Foot
Fate takes strange turns in the gangster world.
This June Alex Sanchez found the shoe on the other foot — instead of witness for the defense, he became notorious defendant (for not the first time in his life).
In brief, Sanchez is accused of only pretending to have rejected the gang life and become a prominent anti-gang activist. In fact, the government claims, Sanchez has all along been a secret leader of an MS-13 clique in Los Angeles.
More specifically, Sanchez is said to have directed the murder of a renegade gang member in El Salvador, one Walter Lacinos (aka “Camaron,” also sometimes spelled “Cameron”).
Prosecutors persuaded a federal magistrate to detain Sanchez when he was arrested. The issue in a detention proceeding is not guilt, but the risk of flight. The strength of the government’s detention case was four wiretapped phone calls in which — according to the analysis of Los Angeles Police Department Detective and MS-13 expert Frank Flores — Sanchez allegedly directed one Juan Bonilla (aka “Zombie”) to whack Camaron.
Judge Manuel L. Real promptly confirmed the magistrate’s decision and set a new bail (detention) hearing for last Monday, October 19, 2009.
According to the court’s one page of clinical minutes, the hearing before Judge Manuel L. Real lasted one hour and eighteen minutes. (Criminal Minutes — General, “Further Hearing re: Defendant’s Application for Review/Reconsideration of Detention Order,” Case No. CR-09-466-R).
Here is what happened, according to the court’s minutes:
Detective Frank Flores is called, sworn and testifies.
Exhibits are identified.
The Court hears arguments of counsel.
For reasons stated, the Court orders the continued detention of defendant.
More or less, open and shut. Here is a nice, balanced account from LA Weekly about the hearing.
But according to the social justice website WitnessLA, something fascinating also happened. And it is no doubt this something that prompted Alex Sanchez’s court-appointed lawyer, Kerry Bensinger, to file an interlocutory appeal with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals regarding the detention order. Courts of appeal generally do not fiddle with such fact-based, pre-trial rulings of lower courts, but the 9th Circuit is said to have reversed Judge Real at an exceptional rate and to be “on his case.”
Sorry, Wrong Member, Redux
Alex Sanchez (WitnessLA Illustration)
Miracle of miracles, Sanchez’s defense lawyer, Bensinger, claimed to have found in the Sanchez case precisely the flaw that brought down the government’s case against Oscar Garcia-Orellana. Namely, the mistaken identification of a party to a key wiretapped phone conversation!
If there were a convenience store for defense tactics, this one would be right up at the front of the MS-13 impulse shopping shelf!
The whole thing reminds me of a common street defense I encountered during my brief tenure as a defense lawyer for indigent defendants in Washington, D.C. some years ago. It was commonly known as “the Tyrone defense” and was more or less automatically uttered by any miscreant collared with incriminating swag in hand, but not actually witnessed ripping the swag off.
“I was just standing here when my boy came by and he handed it to me,” the tarnished angel would state indignantly. And who would that have been? “I don’t know. We just call him ‘Tyrone.'” Naturally, the ubiquitous Tyrone could never be found.
And, yes, I actually saw the “Tyrone defense” work in at least one poorly “papered” case.
But I digress.
Passing curious, no, this amazing coincidence? Perhaps beyond strange and approaching incredible?
Here is the self-admittedly and vigorously pro-Sanchez WitnessLA’s description of the argument, which its editor, Celeste Fremon has headlined, “Arresting Alex Sanchez: Part 6: The Judge Real Show.” (Some among the social justice crowd — but most assuredly not including Ms. Fremon, who is among other things a professor of journalism and who loves her city, including whatever warts she perceives in the LAPD — play a sort of ideological whack-a-mole on this case alternating between whacking Judge Real as some kind of geriatric nut case, the LAPD as a vengeful racist gang determined to “get” Sanchez, and the FBI/Department of Justice as dull-witted, compliant tools of the slavering LA police establishment. Gangsters, on the other hand, generally conduct themselves with the comportment of wronged angels, who would never lie to, manipulate, or exploit the good intentions of those who come bearing breviaries of redemption. For the archetypal case of whackfrenzy, see usual suspect Tom Hayden’s piece beamed down from the empyrean to usual outlet The Nation. )
But I digress again! Here is the WitnessLA excerpt:
One of the issues that [attorney Kerry] Bensinger brought up during the cross examination was his contention that Flores completely and crucially misidentified a person on one of the calls, a guy with the street name of Zombie. According to Flores, the person, “Zombie,” on the phone call was also the person who was eventually arrested for the murder of Cameron, a murder that Sanchez had allegedly ordered during the last of the four phone calls that are the center of the prosecution’s case.
Yet, according to Bensinger, the guy called “Zombie” on the call was a very different fellow from Juan Bonilla, the killer, who is also called Zombie.
(I know this nickname business is dizzying, but try to stay with me here.)
Evidently there are a number of Zombies in and around the local MS-13 cliques—which is common in gangs. There might be a guy with the nickname of Zombie. But there may also be Lil’ Zombie…..Big Zombie….and heaven knows what other permutation of the nickname Zombie (or Sleepy or Dreamer or P’Nut or Snyper or Loco or…..you get the picture).
Anyway it seems that Bensinger’s Zombie (whom we’ll randomly designate as Zombie 2) dropped a whole lot of identifiers during the course of the long conversation, like references to several family members and—helpfully—his actual name.
With the tiniest amount of police work Flores could have verified which Zombie he had on this call—since it was so important to his case.
When asked if he did any of that follow-up investigation, Flores admitted that he had not. When Bensinger asked why, Flores said that he didn’t need to do any further checking because he knew it was Zombie/Juan on the call. (The exchange between Flores and Bensinger was longer than I am portraying here.) And how did the detective know he had the right Zombie in the face of fairly convincing evidence to the contrary? Flores did not elucidate.
However, what Flores did say is that Zombie/Juan was one of the feds’ informants, that after he was arrested for Cameron’s murder, he began singing like a bird and not only confessed to the killing himself, he also fingered Alex Sanchez and said that Sanchez told him on the phone to kill Cameron. [Fairly Civil’s emphasis.]
It would be an understatement to say that WitnessLA is skeptical of the government’s position, notwithstanding its own report of Flores’s testimony that “Zombie/Juan was one of the feds’ informants, that after he was arrested for Cameron’s murder, he began singing like a bird and not only confessed to the killing himself, he also fingered Alex Sanchez and said that Sanchez told him on the phone to kill Cameron.”
Unfortunately, the transcript of this latest detention hearing is not available as of this writing. Would that it were, because some observers who were present and have read the above wonder whether everyone was on the same planet. It is hard, nay impossible, to know what Detective Flores actually said.
In any case, some would say that a singing bird (or rat) in hand — a federal informant who identifies himself as the person on the phone receiving orders — pretty well would establish who was on the other end of the phone line. If “Zombie/Juan” says it was he….? But Zombie/Juan/Whoever apparently uttered words that raise some doubt about who he actually was.
Not enough doubt, however, to persuade Judge Real.
In between blows, it should be noted that gangsters often talk in elliptical ways when on the telephone or in circumstances in which they think someone else might be listening. For example, in No Boundaries I describe how convicted 18th Street gang hit-man Anthony “Coco” Zaragoza sometimes referred to himself in the third person and sometimes adopted “code” pseudonyms for himself in the course of conversations that were being wiretapped by the FBI. One of the investigative challenges for law enforcement is breaking through and interpreting the fog of jargon, crude codes, and such attempts at deception on the part of gangland’s little angels. What seems straightforward to, say, a social justice critic, may have an entirely different meaning to the gangsters involved.
In any event, this is perhaps an appropriate moment to recall the following observation, reported in an earlier Fairly Civil posting:
Experienced gang prosecutors and investigators who are not related to or part of the Sanchez case have told me [first person code for Fairly Civil] that this sort of “back and forth” or what is known as the “battle of the transcripts” is fairly typical of the early stages of a big racketeering case — particularly when you have a case that relies on transcripts that require translation — and that it is best at this stage to keep an open mind and not jump to conclusions but rather to follow the evidence until the “back and forth” sorts itself out.
At this stage it appears to these observers that too many people are jumping to conclusions and making personal attacks (on both sides) when the real issues are evidence-based — namely, “First, “what precisely do the transcripts say?” Then, once that is established, second, “Now that we know what the transcripts say, what exactly does that mean?”
Curiouser and curiouser.
Whack! Whack! Whack!
The Cheshire Cat
Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’
`That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.
`I don’t much care where–‘ said Alice.
`Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.