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Gang members admit to firebombing black families in Boyle Heights housing development

Gang members admit to firebombing black families in Boyle Heights housing development
Members of a Latino street gang have admitted to carrying out a racially motivated firebombing attack on black families in Ramona Gardens Housing Development in Boyle Heights, prosecutors announced Thursday. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Members of a Latino street gang have admitted to carrying out a racially motivated firebombing attack on black families in a Los Angeles housing project, prosecutors announced Thursday.

Three men belonging to the Big Hazard gang will plead guilty to federal hate crimes stemming from the 2014 attack, according to written plea agreements. In exchange for the confessions, prosecutors for U.S. Atty. Nicola T. Hanna agreed to seek some leniency for the men when they are sentenced. Each faces more than 30 years in federal prison.

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The nighttime attack on Mother's Day four years ago laid bare long-standing racial animosity Latino gangs have stoked in the Ramona Gardens Housing Development and elsewhere. The Big Hazard gang claimed the Boyle Heights housing project as its territory and the men set out to terrorize black families into fleeing their apartments, according to a statement released by Hanna.

Jose Saucedo, 24, Edwin Felix, 26, and Jonathan Portillo, 23, were part of a group of eight gang members who carried out the well-planned attack.

Three other members of the gang previously pleaded guilty to participating in the bombing. As part of the plea deals announced this week, prosecutors will not require the three men to testify against the alleged ringleader of the group and an eighth man, who have maintained their innocence and face a trial this summer. Details of the earlier guilty pleas have been kept under seal.

The attack was discussed at a gang meeting in early May 2014, prosecutors alleged, where the purported ringleader, Carlos Hernandez, 31, told gang members that they would use Molotov cocktails to firebomb apartments of some of the 23 black families living in Ramona Gardens at the time.

Hernandez said the order for the attack had come from figures in the Mexican Mafia, a prison gang that controls many Hispanic gangs in Southern California, according to court filings.

On May 11 — Mother's Day — the group met again to prepare for the attack, the indictment said.

At that second meeting, Hernandez assigned each gang member a specific job: breaking apartment windows, lighting the devices, throwing them inside. He also handed out disguises and gloves, according to the indictment.

Prosecutors allege the men didn't carry cellphones to prevent police from tracking their movements and purposefully avoided security cameras as they sneaked up on their targets.

After midnight, the men smashed windows of four apartments they had scouted out and threw in the lit explosives, according to the plea agreements. Black families, including women and children who were sleeping during the attack, lived in three of the apartments, prosecutors said.

A mother who was asleep on a couch with her infant in her arms narrowly missed being struck by one of the firebombs, the statement said.

"It was a miracle that no one was injured in these racially motivated attacks," Hanna said. "These defendants have admitted their goal was to drive African Americans out of this housing facility. This simply will not be tolerated, and we will take any and all steps necessary to protect the civil rights of every person who lives in the United States."

The racial friction persisted after the attack, according to the indictment. Months later, prosecutors allege, a gang member confronted a black family and "warned that they should leave Ramona Gardens or that they too would get firebombed."

The case is the latest of several over the last two decades against Latino street gangs accused of using violence to push rival black gangs out of certain neighborhoods.

A few years ago, federal prosecutors charged members of a Latino gang with a campaign to push blacks out of the unincorporated Florence-Firestone neighborhood that allegedly resulted in 20 homicides over three years.

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In the Harbor Gateway district of L.A., a Latino gang was accused of targeting African Americans, including 14-year-old Cheryl Green, whose 2006 death became a rallying point against such attacks.

And members of a Latino gang in Highland Park were convicted of a series of assaults and killings in the early 1990s.

In Ramona Gardens, the Big Hazard gang tried to keep blacks out for more than a generation.

On Aug. 30, 1992, an explosion ripped through the pantry of a Ramona Gardens apartment where a black couple and their seven children lived. Another black family across the street had been attacked minutes earlier.

At the time, seven black families lived in the project. After the attack, they left. For the next two decades virtually no blacks lived at Ramona Gardens. Big Hazard had deep connections to the Mexican Mafia, which directed attacks on blacks, authorities allege.

Eventually, black families started moving back to Ramona Gardens, a sign of progress in a community and a city that was working hard to put the violence of the 1990s behind it. Then came the 2014 attack. At least one resident said at the time that she would ask for an emergency transfer out of the complex. Others insisted they would stay.

In late 2016, about 4% of the nearly 1,800 people living at Ramona Gardens were black, according to most recent figures available.

Follow @joelrubin on Twitter

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