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4 gang members found guilty in case stemming from baby's death

Racketeering charges were brought against the Columbia Lil Cycos, who extorted vendors in MacArthur Park. An infant was killed in 2007 by gunfire targeting a defiant vendor.

May 12, 2012|By Victoria Kim, Los Angeles Times
  • Pallbearers accompany the casket of three-week-old homicide victim Luis Angel Garcia after his funeral in September 2007. The baby's death led to a large-scale crackdown on the Columbia Lil Cycos, a clique of the 18th Street gang.
Pallbearers accompany the casket of three-week-old homicide victim Luis… (Brian Van der Brug, Los Angeles…)

In 2005, leaders of a gang that sold crack and other drugs near MacArthur Park decided to add a new business venture: extorting the vendors who crowd the streets each evening, selling clothes, pirated DVDs and electronics to supplement a hardscrabble existence.

The new effort led to a bloody consequence in September 2007, when an 18-year-old tasked with gunning down a defiant vendor accidentally shot to death a 3-week-old infant. The baby's death triggered a large-scale crackdown on the clique that culminated with a two-month trial that began in March.

Federal prosecutors brought sweeping criminal charges against the Columbia Lil Cycos, a group they described as one of the most ruthless and lucrative cliques of the 18th Street gang. For the vendors to refuse payment — first $10 or $20, later climbing to $50 — meant to invite the ire of the clique's enforcers, they alleged.

On Friday, a Los Angeles jury convicted four of the clique's members on federal racketeering charges for participating in the gang's business, which prosecutors said was an operation spanning a decade of extortion, intimidation, money laundering, drug dealing and murder, terrorizing and poisoning a neighborhood.

One defendant, Javier Perez, was also convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and conspiracy to kidnap. He lured the gang member who shot the baby to Mexico and attempted to strangle him. Authorities said he was trying to deflect the heat on the clique following the baby's killing. The three others, Eduardo Hernandez and twins Vladimir and Leonidas Iraheta, were also convicted of drug trafficking charges.

Among the witnesses who testified at trial were the vendor, who survived despite four gunshot wounds, and his shooter, who survived after Perez and others allegedly took him to Mexico, slung a rope around his neck and threw him off the side of a road.

"It was a group that rose to power through the willingness of its members to act ruthlessly for the gang," Assistant U.S. Atty. Kevin Lally told jurors in closing arguments. "This is a case about a criminal enterprise, the CLCS, and those that did its bidding."

The panel deadlocked on charges surrounding an older murder that prosecutors attributed to the gang, the 2001 slaying of college student Jose Barajas Jr., whom gang members allegedly mistook for a rival gangster. Jurors voted 8 to 4 in favor of acquittal, attorneys said.

Prosecutors had alleged Hernandez and the Iraheta brothers shot Barajas, who was home from college for a family wedding, while looking for rivals to kill in the Rockwood gang's territory.

"They took what is now a 10-year-old cold case and put it on with no eyewitnesses, no scientific evidence, nothing," said Anthony Solis, Leonidas Iraheta's attorney.

With Friday's verdicts, 38 of the 44 people initially indicted as part of the crackdown have been convicted on charges relating to the gang, prosecutors said. Most entered guilty pleas and cooperated with the government, including the clique's shot-caller at the time of the indictment, Sergio "Tricky" Pantoja.

In his testimony, Pantoja described rising up through the ranks and coming to run the clique's drug-dealing, extortion and intimidation operations, collecting profits to be funneled up to a Mexican Mafia member at a supermax prison in Colorado.

"If you want to be a big-time shot caller, or a member of the Mexican Mafia, you go with the program," he testified.

Between 2000 and 2007, the gang sold an estimated 184 kilograms—more than 400 pounds—of crack cocaine, prosecutors said.

"It was a corner-by-corner, block-by-block battle for domination," Assistant U.S. Atty. Nili Moghaddam told jurors at trial.

Defense attorneys attacked prosecutors' reliance on the numerous cooperating witnesses, including Pantoja, who testified in exchange for lighter sentences and other benefits.

"Cooperating defendants are inherently unreliable, they have huge incentives to lie," Richard Novak, Vladimir Iraheta's attorney, said following the verdict. While conceding that his client was a gang member, Novak said that does not make him a participant in a racketeering enterprise.

All four defendants face up to life terms in prison when they are sentenced in September, prosecutors said.

victoria.kim@latimes.com

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