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A gang's staying power

Entrenched for years, the Avenues continues to defy the forces of law and gentrification in Northeast L.A.

February 23, 2008|Joe Mozingo, Sam Quinones and Richard Winton | Times Staff Writers

They depicted the police as hostile and corrupt, and several said the shooting of Daniel Leon was unprovoked, although one neighbor said he clearly saw Leon raise the assault weapon at the officers.

Leon had a history of violence. He was arrested for killing a drug buyer at the house in 2004 and was ultimately convicted of being an accessory to murder. In 2005, he was arrested in a case in which prosecutors alleged "he brutally beat and robbed a 43-year-old man . . . as his wife looked on." The wife would not speak to prosecutors out of fear of retaliation.

This fear is the continuing obstacle in authorities' attempts to break the gang's grip. Witnesses don't believe police will protect them. And gang members who flip on their brethren are instantly "green-lighted" -- marked for execution.

David "Mousie" Cruz testified in 2001 against an Avenues member who was accused of taking part in the killings of two black men. Cruz was then deported to El Salvador, where he was stabbed 22 times in retaliation, but he survived.

FBI Special Agent Jerry Fradella recalled trying to pressure the least culpable defendant in the hate-crime case to testify against his codefendants in exchange for leniency. Fernando "Sneaky" Cazares was known to have been inside a van listening to a police scanner while other defendants carried out a killing outside. But he wouldn't betray them.

"He was loyal to the end," Fradella said. "And he got triple life just like the other guys."

Compounding the problem, potential informants often cannot envision a life after snitching -- no longer safe in their neighborhoods, which are often all they know of the world. And in prison, they would have to be held in protective custody.

"They're just so unfamiliar with whatever else is out there, they want to stick to what they know," Fradella said.

The silence is unbearable for the victims' families. Luisa Prudhomme's son Anthony was shot twice in the head as he lay in bed in his apartment in Highland Park on Nov. 3, 2000. He had no gang affiliation and worked at a Pier 1.

His slaying was part of the hate-crime case that led to the conviction of the five men. But the actual shooter is still at large. Police believe they know his identity, but no one will talk.

"I want the person who murdered my son to be brought to justice," Prudhomme said. "The guy who pulled the trigger. He used a pillow, but he must have gotten some of my son's blood on him. He knows what he did. God knows what he did."

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joe.mozingo@latimes.com

sam.quinones@latimes.com

richard.winton@latimes.com

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