A day before Thanksgiving 1998, Donald "Pato" Schubert was shot to death in the carport of his apartment building in the San Gabriel Valley city of Rosemead.
A member of the Lomas Rosemead street gang pleaded guilty to killing Schubert, a plumber and former gang member.
With that, the case was filed away, forgotten by nearly everyone except Schubert's family.
Then, earlier this month, the case suddenly returned to life. At a hearing in Pasadena Superior Court guarded by a dozen deputies, including two SWAT officers, a judge ordered Eulalio "Lalo" Martinez, 46, a reputed member of the Mexican Mafia prison gang, to stand trial for Schubert's killing.
Martinez has sat in a maximum-security cell at Pelican Bay State Prison for nearly 15 years. But law enforcement officers and gang members say he controls the Lomas Rosemead street gang, ordering members to funnel him taxes collected from local drug dealers and directing killings, often by using notes with micro-writing -- known as kites -- smuggled out of the cellblock.
If proved, the case against him would support a belief widely held by law enforcement officers and gang members that many homicides that appear to be simple street-gang fights are instead contract murders ordered by members of the Mexican Mafia, known as the Eme, Spanish for M.
The case is noteworthy because rarely are Eme members prosecuted for street homicides. Often, any link between a specific killing and the Eme is obscure. Moreover, once an actual triggerman is prosecuted, investigators often have no time to dig further into why the crime was committed. Even when a detective believes there's something more to a killing, a link is often hard to prove.
The case against Martinez, for example, relies on the words of three convicted murderers, one a former Eme member and another a crack dealer who said he once saw a note from Martinez ordering Schubert's death. No such note is in evidence in the case.
Much of the case hinges on Daniel Ahumada, the crack dealer and Lomas gang member who pleaded guilty to killing Schubert. Recently, Ahumada, serving 15 years to life in prison, has come forward to implicate others, including Martinez.
At the recent hearing, Martinez's lawyer, Michael Belter, said the case constructs only a "very tenuous link" to Martinez by "three men who have every motive in the world" to lie. "We have no physical evidence. We have faded memories," he said.
Through a family member, Martinez declined a request for an interview.
Despite the difficulty of proving a link between street killings and the prison gang, the reality of such ties is taken as true by many law enforcement officials and gang members who say the Eme has gained control over street gangs in the last 15 years.
"Usually when an Eme member has a neighborhood sewn up, there's no gang slaying that's not approved" by him, said a Lomas gang member who said he was Martinez's lieutenant on the streets briefly a few years ago. The man, like several others interviewed, spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing retaliation from the gang.
Gang members do the Eme's bidding out of either fear or adulation for men they've usually never seen and know only as the "big homies," gang members say.
"The gangs don't run the gangs no more," said a Lomas Rosemead gang member who is doing time in state prison. "Everything's getting run from inside here."
Law enforcement officials say that with gang members as its street soldiers, the Mexican Mafia has evolved into a region-wide organized crime syndicate. The Eme collects taxes from drug dealers and sometimes prostitutes and even unlicensed ice cream vendors on the street.
They also say the gang orders murders on the streets and riots in county jails and thus is a force affecting public policy far beyond prison walls.
"The average gang killing is not always a gang killing," said Rene Enriquez, a long-time Eme member who dropped out in 2002 and is in prison in protective custody. The Eme "has this mythical ability to get people to do its bidding."
A veteran homicide detective believes that included the killing of Pato Schubert.
Sheriff's Det. Frank Gonzales, a year from retirement now, has delved into unsolved killings in the Lomas Rosemead barrio for 13 years.
Several of the homicides appeared to be simple street-gang killings, he said. "On the surface, they all looked that way," Gonzales said. "Until you had sources, you would think it was a regular gang murder. But fortunately, people opened up."
Gonzales believes Martinez ordered half a dozen murders, though he declines to name them, saying he hopes to have charges filed over the next year.
Schubert's killing is the first to go to court.
Lomas Rosemead is a Mexican American gang dating to the 1950s and based in the poor neighborhood covering the hills above Rosemead, an unincorporated piece of L.A. County territory that had neither sidewalks nor sewers until the 1980s.