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A killing -- and fear of retaliation

Detectives say no one would speak up against the Mongols bikers suspected in a fatal barroom beating.

October 25, 2008|Scott Glover | Glover is a Times staff writer.

As killings go, Leon Huddleston's should have been relatively easy to solve.

The 26-year-old Pizza Hut employee was shooting pool in a crowded bar when he was cracked over the head with a pool cue and kicked repeatedly in the ribs by a pair of rough-looking biker types, authorities said.

At least a dozen people were in the pool room of Young's Bar and Grill in Lancaster when the fatal beating took place, the bartender would later recall. But when sheriff's detectives arrived and began asking questions, no one seemed to have seen anything. A tape from a surveillance camera that would have helped investigators determine who was there that night was missing, and the crime scene had been cleaned up.

Frustrated homicide detectives and the victim's father say there's a reason people were so reluctant to help: The alleged assailants were members of the Mongols motorcycle gang, who according to a sweeping federal indictment made public earlier this week were willing to commit such brazen crimes precisely "because they believe victims and witnesses are afraid to testify against them."

The circumstances surrounding Huddleston's slaying represent another hallmark of the Mongols' violence, according to authorities. The young man, who was known to be mouthy at times, somehow irked or disrespected members of the gang -- and he paid the price.

In Huddleston's case, the price was a fractured skull, some broken ribs and, ultimately, his life.

Huddleston's slaying is one of four mentioned in the 177-page indictment, which is based largely on the observations of four undercover agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who infiltrated the gang. The indictment accuses the Mongols of racketeering, drug trafficking, weapons offenses and money laundering.

The gang members are also accused of numerous acts of violence involving guns, knives, brass knuckles, lead pipes and steel-toed boots. They shot, stabbed and beat members of their rivals, the Hells Angels, and terrorized ordinary citizens as well, authorities allege.

Huddleston's alleged killers are Norberto Jose Montes, a.k.a. "Villain," and Klint Austin Melcer, who goes by "Danger."

Montes was arrested along with 60 other Mongols during a series of early morning raids Tuesday. Melcer remains at large.

Huddleston, a high school dropout from the Central Valley, was living in Lancaster to serve his probation on a drug conviction, according to his father, who asked not to be named because he was fearful of the Mongols.

The father said his son was temporarily living in a homeless shelter a couple of blocks from the bar until he'd completed his probation.

He'd just landed a job at a nearby Pizza Hut, the first he'd had in some time, which his father took as sign that he was getting his life together.

Tony Shy, a resident attendant at the Lancaster Community Shelter, said Huddleston was thrilled to have a job many people wouldn't want: washing dishes and answering the phone at Pizza Hut.

"He came running in here, 'Tony, I got a job, I got a job,' " Shy recalled in a recent interview. He said Huddleston had taken to bringing home leftover pizza to share with other residents of the shelter.

Shy said Huddleston could be a little "wild" at times, "but he was fine if you knew how to handle him."

"I liked him," he added.

But Shy said Huddleston occasionally got into arguments with other residents and had a hard time walking away from a dispute. He said the 5-foot-9, 180-pound Huddleston once boasted that he'd never lost a fight.

"Don't worry, one day you will," Shy said he told him.

About 9 p.m. on Valentine's Day, Huddleston made the short walk to Young's, a smoky neighborhood bar that caters to a blue-collar clientele, including members of the Mongols and Vagos biker gangs. Huddleston had taken to shooting pool and drinking draft beer at the bar after he got the job at Pizza Hut.

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Det. Steve Lankford, the lead investigator on the case, said the key break was a tip from an informant who wasn't even in the bar the evening Huddleston was killed. The informant, whom he declined to identify, implicated the two Mongols in the slaying. Lankford and his partner then used that information as leverage to persuade a couple of witnesses to cooperate.

"Any time you have gangs involved, whether it's motorcycle gangs or rival street gangs, it's extremely difficult to get people to come forward because of the fear of retaliation," Lankford said.

What detectives were ultimately able to piece together was that the larger of the two men, Montes, who weighs nearly 300 pounds, hit Huddleston from behind with a pool cue.

When he fell to the ground, both Mongols began to kick and stomp him, the detectives said.

Huddleston was taken to a local hospital, where he spent a week in a drug-induced coma, his father said.

His family decided to take him off life support "because he was already gone," the elder Huddleston said.

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