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Murder trial exposes gang intrigue, greed

A childhood friend of two San Bernardino gang leaders set up their executions, prosecutors say.

June 29, 2008|Sam Quinones | Times Staff Writer

On the West Side of San Bernardino, most everyone knew Johnny and Gilbert Agudo.

They'd grown up in the tight-knit barrio.

Handsome and charismatic, they were the presidents of two cliques of the West Side Verdugo street gang: Johnny, 31, of 7th Street Locos and Gilbert, 27, of the Little Counts.

United, they led their gangs in feuds with rivals from other parts of town.

But then things took an unexpected turn.

Early on the morning of July 9, 2000, police responded to calls of a shooting behind a West Side duplex. The Agudos and two half-brothers, Marselino and Anthony Luna, lay dead or dying in what would become the biggest gang slaying in recent San Bernardino history.

Eight years later, the so-called Dead Presidents case is underway in a San Bernardino courtroom. Closing arguments are expected this week.

Prosecutors have charged Luis "Maldito" Mendoza, a boyhood friend of the Agudos and a 7th Street gang member, with organizing the killings. Also charged is a member of Mendoza's crew, Lorenzo Arias. Both could face the death penalty.

Mendoza's cousin Froylan Chiprez -- another alleged shooter -- is believed to be hiding in Mexico. John Ramirez, part of Mendoza's crew, pleaded guilty and testified against Mendoza and Arias.

The arrests of Mendoza and the others shocked residents. All were members of Johnny Agudo's 7th Street Locos. No West Side gang ever killed one of its own.

The Mendozas were from Mexico, while the Agudos were a Mexican American family with decades in the barrio. The arrival of Mexican immigrants had upset some Latinos in the neighborhood. But Mendoza's brother was Johnny Agudo's best friend and together they started 7th Street Locos.

"They grew up together," said Cheryl Kersey, the prosecutor handling the case. "Nobody ever anticipated this."

The story of the Dead Presidents is a tale of neighborhood bonds torn apart by power, betrayal and greed, prosecutors say. Behind it all, they say, is the Mexican Mafia prison gang, which in many Southern California barrios has turned gang members against one another.

"You grow up with somebody 15 or 20 years and he tries to kill you," said a gang member who grew up with the Agudos and Mendozas, and requested anonymity for fear of reprisal. "Something's wrong there."

San Bernardino's West Side is a flatland of wooden houses, small markets and vacant lots that has always been separate from the rest of the city.

The Santa Fe railroad, built in the late 1800s, divided the West Side from downtown. In the 1960s, the 215 Freeway, with offramps only heading east, "strangled the business district here, which was extremely active," said Esther Estrada, a city councilwoman who grew up in the neighborhood.

But the West Side hung in.

Santa Fe's train repair shop employed more than 1,000 people, most of them West Siders. Men also worked at Kaiser Steel's factory in Fontana, or at Norton Air Force base.

Kids "never thought we were poor," said Mercedes Agudo, the victims' mother. "We knew it, but they didn't."

While gangs were a strong presence in the neighborhood when her kids were young, Agudo said, there were other diversions too. In the early 1980s, break dancing gripped the West Side and kept many kids out of trouble.

The neighborhood's best dancers were in Breaking Crew, organized by Mercedes Agudo, and made up of her sons, Johnny and Gilbert, and numerous cousins and friends, such as Marselino and Anthony Luna.

One rival was the Mendozas' Break Force, organized by Luis Mendoza and his older brother, Issa, who came from Mexico as children. The Mexican American kids chided them for how they dressed and their immigrant ways. Rival camps of youths developed.

"They were Mexicanos. They weren't from here," said Patricia Gonzalez, mother of Marselino Luna.

Yet the neighborhood united against outside threats.

In 1983, the school district moved to close Pacific High School. The West Side loved the school. Barrio kids anchored its top-flight wrestling team.

Angel Agudo, the Agudos' elder brother, organized to save it. Mothers, grandfathers, even gang members got involved. But the district prevailed, and the school closed.

Then in 1984, Kaiser Steel closed, laying off dozens of neighborhood men. In 1992, Norton Air Force Base also closed, taking 10,000 jobs. Then, Santa Fe Railroad took its shop and a thousand jobs to Topeka, Kan.

New drugs arrived in the barrio.

In the early 1980s, said Mercedes Agudo, "the thing that really destroyed a lot of families was PCP" -- an animal tranquilizer that makes humans impervious to pain.

Crack came in the late 1980s. Kids dealing dope replaced men with union jobs.

Youths stopped dancing to form gang cliques and feud over street corners. Families fleeing the L.A. gang-and-crack nightmare brought more of it to San Bernardino.

Violence skyrocketed. Many West Side youths went to prison.

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