Jose Cruz is a walking testament to what happens when a member turns against the Avenues street gang.
He has 30 scars from the stab wounds he suffered in one attempt on his life -- on his arms, torso and legs. In another attack, he was beaten so severely that he has a visible dent in his skull, according to court papers, “the size and shape of a pistol butt.”
His street gang goes back five generations in Highland Park, which for Cruz is five miles and several lifetimes from the downtown courtroom where he is scheduled to testify as the star witness for the prosecution in the trial of a group of childhood friends.
Federal prosecutors, who launched their case last week, contend that the Avenues gang between 1994 and 2000 conspired to kill African Americans on their turf.
Men, women and children were harassed, terrorized, assaulted and slain as gang members sought to force black residents out of Latino neighborhoods, prosecutors said.
Authorities are using a federal hate-crime law based on the amendment to the U.S. Constitution that outlawed slavery, and another law created in the civil rights era, to go after four gang members. Barbara Bernstein, deputy chief of the criminal section of the civil rights divisions of the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, is part of the prosecution team.
Attorneys for the defendants -- Gilbert Saldana, Alejandro Martinez, Fernando Cazares and Porfirio Avila -- have asserted that the federal government has no power to involve itself in a common street crime.
Defense attorney Reuven L. Cohen told jurors last week that one of the slayings cited in the charges -- the 1999 shooting of Kenneth Wilson -- was not a hate crime but “a simple gang killing committed out of boredom.”
Cohen said the crimes sprang from the “sad” truth of “a tension that exists between African American gangs and Latino gangs.”
The first of three former gang members, each in custody and hoping for leniency, testified Monday. Jesse Diaz, who described himself as a tagger from age 12, told jurors the Avenues decided to fight the “infestation” of blacks in Highland Park with a systematic terror campaign designed to run them out of the neighborhood.
Diaz, who has 10 more years to serve in prison for attempted murder, said the Avenues hated all rival gangs. But the antipathy for blacks was different, he said.
Highland Park became the scene of a game in which Diaz’s group of Avenues actually competed with another “clique” to run the most blacks out of Highland Park, he testified.
Two other informants, one serving a long state prison term and the other a deported immigrant, will tell jurors that Saldana shot Wilson repeatedly in 1999, explaining that Saldana had just acquired a gun and “wanted to test it out.”
One told the FBI in interviews that the gang got an order in 1998 from the Mexican Mafia prison gang to “kill any blacks ... on sight.”
Rick Ortiz, a Los Angeles police spokesman, called the Avenues a “bully” gang that uses its large numbers to intimidate.
“The Avenues have been around for a long time,” Ortiz said. “They are the largest gang in the northeast area, with over 500 documented, active members.”
Although gang members have for years been subject to a court order that limits their activities, they remain active, authorities said. Their racial antipathy is an outgrowth of prison culture, in which rival street gang members band together by race and then bring those attitudes back to the streets, Ortiz said.
“When you have gang members standing out on the street corners, they intimidate people,” he said. “They may commit a minor offense, like vandalism, but people are so afraid of them they won’t call in. It diminishes the quality of life in the community.”
Heinrich Keifer, president of the Historic Highland Park Neighborhood Council, said racial violence by gang members is not currently a problem in the area.
“Our biggest problem is not so much gangs, although some members of the community are intimidated. It’s more the taggers,” Keifer said. “They create that feeling that the community is destroyed. The gangs aren’t ruling the turf. They’re not necessarily muscling people out. There was some of that in the past.
“The area is on the rebound, so much so that many Westsiders are moving in,” Keifer said, citing the historic heritage of the area northeast of downtown. “Many of the poorer people are struggling with the rising rents.”
As part of his strategy in the case, defense attorney Cohen plans to target the witnesses’ credibility.
Diaz and the two other former gang members are lying to curry favor with prosecutors, Cohen said. Defendants Saldana and Avila are in prison, serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for murder. Cazares is in custody on a parole violation. Martinez’s custody status could not be determined.
Prosecutors say the gang members conspired in various acts of violence, including:
* Wilson’s 1999 killing, which occurred when he returned to his Avenue 52 home late at night after a party, his nephew, Duane Williams, testified Thursday. Wilson was shot repeatedly by Saldana and two others because of his race, Assistant U.S. Atty. Alex Bustamante told jurors.
* Diaz testified that gang members beat a black homeless man with metal weapons, and attacked an African American man speaking on a pay telephone from behind and severely beat him.
Another black man was assaulted on the street because he was walking with a Latina, according to Bustamante.
* Finally, authorities say they have linked the killings of two other men to the Avenues, partly through ballistics. The victims were Christopher Bauser, who was shot execution-style at a bus stop in 2000, and Anthony Prudomme, also killed on a street.
Bustamante offered a chilling view of the mentality of the Avenues as the trial opened in U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson’s courtroom. Martinez was driving a van carrying five fellow Avenues members when he spotted Wilson.
“Anybody want to kill a nigger?” Bustamante said.
“Those are not my words, ladies and gentlemen,” Bustamante added, gesturing across the room to Martinez. “They are his.”