N.Y. Gang King Claims Princely Motives

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The city's most notorious gangsta, his goatee trimmed tight and his ski cap pulled low, climbs out of a hired car and swaggers into court.

From the top of his head to the soles of his sneakers, King Tone--Supreme Inca of the Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation--sports his gang's black and gold colors. Cops shoot hard glances as he struts by.

Antonio Fernandez--his real name, read aloud by the judge--pleads not guilty. To running a red light. On his bicycle.

The alleged menace to society, the leader of a street gang renowned for murder, mutilation and mayhem, leaves the Queens Traffic Violations Bureau in search of $40 bond.

"This is me," he announces with a cackling laugh. "Exhibit A for the federal government."

The traffic ticket, Fernandez vows, is the extent of his illegal activity since assuming leadership of the Kings two years ago.

That would be a drastic change from his predecessor, Luis "King Blood" Felipe, who founded the New York chapter in 1986.

Felipe ran the gang from prison like a demented puppet-master. He ordered the murders of three Kings and plotted to murder three others. He routinely dispatched "T.O.S." orders--shorthand for "Terminate on Sight."

In one particularly gory execution, a rival was strangled, decapitated and set afire in a bathtub. His Kings tattoo was peeled off his arm with a knife.

Convicted of racketeering in 1996, Felipe was sentenced to life imprisonment in solitary confinement to cut him off from the Kings. Before departing, he publicly named Fernandez as his successor--the equivalent of John Gotti publicly anointing the next head of the Gambino crime family.

So, given 31-year-old Fernandez's past as a crackhead and con--and the fact that just after Christmas he was back behind bars, accused of assaulting his girlfriend--is his conversion to community activist and doer of good deeds genuine?

"In short answer to your question, no," says U.S. Atty. Mary Jo White, who jailed four dozen Kings in 1995-96. Police, prosecutors and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani agree.

"I'm sorry if people can't forgive the nation for the past," says Fernandez. "The crime in my nation now is individual, low-level crime."

Speaking in a rapid-fire rap, Fernandez says he wants the Latin Kings to be reborn like him, and he can claim some success.

The Kings protested police brutality with Iris Baez, the mother of a Bronx man killed by a cop. They marched on City Hall after a Haitian immigrant was allegedly assaulted in a police station. They attended community board meetings, mounted voter registration drives, fought for improved public housing.

Fernandez boasts that 35 Kings are attending college, and 52 "Pee Wee Kings" are in the first grade. Drug dealers are "vanished"--asked to turn in their colors and disassociate themselves.

He sees the next generation of Kings as community leaders and college graduates, politicians and policy makers. The New York-born son of Puerto Rican immigrants speaks, grandly, of a Latin King as mayor of Nueva York.

And although 1,000 of his 2,400 Kings and Queens are behind bars, he insists his street gang can succeed where the Black Panthers and other groups have failed, and become a political force.

"I'm going to knock down the walls of City Hall by learning the right trigger to pull. The voting trigger," he says.

Fernandez says his conversion happened when he was walking down a South Bronx street with a crew of Kings, and an elderly woman lurched for the safety of her front door.

"I said, 'Damn, we're the Latin Kings,' " Fernandez recalled. "And the people who fear us the most are the Latinos."

There was much to fear.

The Kings were founded in Chicago prisons during the 1940s, to protect Latino inmates. The gang soon spread outside--to Illinois, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York.

Usually descended from convicts, Kings had little respect for the law. They established their own code, Kingism, and operated as their own nation.

In 1990, four years after Felipe founded the New York chapter, Fernandez enlisted. He was a lost soul, strung out on crack and doing time for drug dealing.

"I didn't know who I was," he recalls. "I finally took some time to look in the mirror: 'Damn, kid, you're not that bad-looking. Why are you killing yourself?' "

He says he gave up crime. But during Felipe's trial, a witness testified that Fernandez had discussed killing a fellow King.

Fernandez denies it, but tales like these keep authorities skeptical. Capt. James McCool, head of the NYPD's crime intelligence section, says the Kings remain active in narcotics, weapons sales and street crime.

"My Kings ain't perfect," Fernandez shoots back. "But neither is the Police Department."

His many believers include Iris Baez, whose son died during a controversial police arrest; his lawyer, Ronald Kuby, who compares Fernandez with Martin Luther King Jr.; the Rev. Luis Barrios, who hosted the Kings in his Harlem church and calls Fernandez a prophet and "a very, very spiritual person."

Fernandez, who veers from obscenity to philosophy to comedy in the course of a single sentence, says his real message is sincerity. Thug life is over, he says. Community activism is in.

"I want to be one of the greatest leaders this nation ever had," he nearly shouts. "I want to go down in history. I want my daughter to say, 'Damn, my father did something. He wasn't just a crackhead on the corner.' "

Addressing several dozen students at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Fernandez is funny, engaging and animated.

One student describes the Kings in her Brooklyn neighborhood as dope-smoking, liquor-guzzling toughs.

Fernandez quickly replies: "Those little young brothers, smoking blunts and drinking beers, I'm going to continue to work with them. I pray every night. . . . But I'm not perfect, and neither are my members."

Fernandez leaves to warm applause. In the hallway outside, two Kings enrolled at the college approach their leader and share the gang's handshake.

"Be careful, right?" Fernandez tells them gently. "Stay in school."

Yet Fernandez sits uneasily atop his nation. Last June, renegade Kings allegedly plotted to assassinate him. Fernandez took to wearing a bulletproof vest.

He spent 8 1/2 months on Rikers Island in 1996 on a parole violation--possession of a weapon, a charge later dismissed by a judge who angrily suggested the gun was planted.

Fernandez claims police persecution; he points to recent arrests in the Bronx for illegal possession of ammunition (one bullet found in a car trunk) and in Brooklyn for unlawful assembly (an outdoor meeting of the Kings).

Authorities say the arrests demonstrate that the new King Tone is a fantasy, propped up by his rhetoric and the media.

And that 1993 drugs conviction keeps catching up with him.

The assault allegation has landed him back in jail as a parole violator, at least until a hearing this week.

But sitting in the cramped visiting room at the Manhattan Detention Center, Fernandez insists this won't return the Latin King and Queen Nation to the bad old days.

I'm just a speaker of the movement," he says, "and this movement doesn't stop."

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