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Hate Crime Charged in Gang Killing

June 29, 2006|John Spano | Times Staff Writer

A Latino street gang threatened, assaulted, terrorized and murdered black people in Highland Park for six years in an effort to keep them out of their territory, a federal prosecutor alleged Wednesday.

"Kenneth Wilson was killed because he was black, because he was in Highland Park and because the Avenues gang members had promised each other, had agreed that they would drive African Americans out of the neighborhood, by threats, by force, by murder," Assistant U.S. Atty. Alex Bustamante told jurors.

Prosecutors used a federal hate crimes law, based on the 13th Amendment to the Constitution outlawing slavery, to prosecute the defendants, along with conspiracy charges, in Wilson's death.

The defense claimed without success that the federal government has no power to involve itself in a common street crime, such as Wilson's 1999 murder in a car in Highland Park.

The defendants are Gilbert Saldana, Alejandro Martinez, Fernando Cazares and Porfirio Avila. The trial opened under extraordinary security in the Edward R. Roybal Courthouse downtown, with federal officers blanketing all exits from the courtroom.

The defendants sat behind three rising rows of seats opposite the jury, each shackled to the floor.

The restraints were behind an elaborate set of risers that make them invisible to others in the courtroom.

Defense attorney Reuven L. Cohen urged jurors to keep an open mind and to reject testimony from three former Avenues gang members who he said turned government informants to curry favor with prosecutors.

One of them, David Cruz, a convicted, deported felon who was brought into the U.S. to testify for the government, was at the center of a series of hearings before U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson leading up to the trial.

The alleged conspiracy included multiple assaults on blacks, and prosecutors said they have linked two other killings to the scheme.

"They wanted all blacks out of that neighborhood, not just African American men, not just African American gang members but all African American women and children," Bustamante said.

Cohen said the crimes sprang in part from racial prejudice "that exists in every pocket of every corner of every part of our city."

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