Highland Park Gang Trial Paints a Landscape of Hate
On his dead-end street of Section 8 apartments and slumping clapboard bungalows, Christopher Bowser cut an audacious figure for a young black man who had just arrived on the turf of a Latino gang with a record of killing going back half a century.
Whenever Bowser left the Highland Park apartment he shared with his mother, he cruised the streets with a boombox thundering rap music, acting as if “the neighborhood was his neighborhood,” in the words of one gang member.
The Avenues 43, who rule the weedy, narrow southern handle of Highland Park between Mt. Washington and the Pasadena Freeway, hated him. According to police and prosecutors, they beat him repeatedly. They called him mayate, a Spanish obscenity for blacks. They tried to run him down with a car. They robbed him and threatened to kill him if he didn’t leave.
Despite the attacks, Bowser stayed and played his rap for five tough years -- until Dec. 11, 2000, when he was shot three times in the head while standing at a bus stop. Police pulled up as the last sigh of air escaped from his lungs.
Bowser’s slaying at the age of 28 and the killing of two other black men in Highland Park between 1995 and 2000 are grist for the federal hate crime trial of five Avenues members that is wrapping up this week in a downtown federal courtroom. The prosecutors allege that the Avenues launched a campaign of violence to force black people out of Highland Park in the 1990s.
This is not a case, they say, of a Latino gang fighting a rival black gang over turf, crimes typically prosecuted in state court and categorized under the everyday rubric of gang violence. The victims were targeted simply because they were black, they contend.
This is the first high-profile case in which the Justice Department has prosecuted a gang of color as a hate group, using laws traditionally employed to go after white supremacist groups like skinheads and the Ku Klux Klan, several federal officials said. The attorney general sent Bobbi Bernstein, a deputy chief of the Criminal Section of the Civil Rights Division in Washington, to help local Assistant U.S. Atty. Alex Bustamante argue the case.
In essence, they are trying to prove that the gang’s activity amounted to a conspiracy to violate the victims’ rights to live and walk the public streets of Highland Park.
Deputy Federal Public Defender Reuven Cohen, representing one of the defendants, said the Bush administration is attempting to “sell a fiction to the people of Los Angeles.”
Cohen said the killings and assaults at issue were tragic, but not hate crimes. He argued that two frustrated detectives who did not have enough evidence to try a suspect in state court concocted the notion of a racial conspiracy so they could seek a conviction in federal court.
Prosecutors, in his account, are overlooking the nuance and complexity of race relations on the rough streets of Los Angeles.
“The evidence that you will hear will no doubt reveal that in Los Angeles, there is a sad, but very real, tension between gangs,” Cohen said in his opening statement. “There is tension between and among Latino gangs. And there is tension between Latino and African American gangs.
“That tension includes the use of racial epithets. It includes the use of threats. And it includes the use of force.”
Whatever the gang’s motivation, testimony about their actions has been chilling. Two Avenues 43 members -- a clique of the larger Avenues gang -- told of riding in a stolen van with four cohorts when they came upon a black man parking his Cadillac. According to testimony, one of the defendants, his head and chest tattooed with skulls, blithely blurted to his homies, “Hey, wanna kill a nigger?”
The man, Kenneth Wilson, 38, who was visiting a friend, was shot to death as his car slowly rolled down the street.
Prosecutors allege that the gang targeted African Americans indiscriminately: Members shot a 15-year-old boy riding a bike; pistol-whipped a jogger; knocked a woman off a bike and beat her in the head; beat a man at a payphone with a metal club; and drew the outlines of human bodies and scrawled a racial slur in chalk on a family’s driveway.
And they allegedly kicked in the door to a man’s apartment and fatally shot him in the head while he slept.
Officials are just beginning to get a sense of the prevalence of hate violence by street gangs. Although most gang members attack people of their own race, the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations’ latest human rights report said there were 41 recorded cases of interracial gang-related hate crime in 2004. The real number would be much higher but most victims are afraid to go to police, the commission said.
“In the overwhelming number of these cases, Latino gang members spontaneously attacked African American victims who had no gang affiliation,” the commission wrote.
It said conflicts between racially based prison gangs like the Mexican Mafia “can have a significant impact on racialized gang violence in L.A. County and contribute to the levels of hate violence involving gangs.”
Police detectives say that the attacks in Highland Park have subsided, and are no longer a problem. The Avenues have kept a low profile after a series of convictions and a city injunction that prevents them from meeting publicly.
But in the 1990s, not only black people but their Latino friends faced gang reprisals, according to testimony in the hate crimes case.
Pedro Avelar, 24, became friends with Bowser and another black youth named Junior when he was 12. He testified that the Avenues harassed him so much that by the time he was 16, he had to stop being seen with his black friends.
“They said they would kill me,” he testified. One day around 1997, he said, “some guys just pulled up and hit Junior in the face.” There were more epithets.
“Junior moved out after Chris was killed,” Avelar said.
Tanya Alamin told jurors that she was walking out of a liquor store in neighboring Eagle Rock with her black boyfriend one night when four men pulled up in a Cadillac and shouted a Spanish slur. The couple tried to keep walking, but one man jumped out and began beating her boyfriend with a bar used to lock a steering wheel.
Alamin ran to a payphone to call police and the attackers left. Later that night, police pulled over a Cadillac like the one Alamin described. One of the passengers fled toward some houses and escaped. The driver, questioned by police, was Fernando “Sneaky” Cazares, one of the men now on trial.
The others are Alejandro “Bird” Martinez; Porfirio “Dreamer” Avila; Gilbert “Lucky” Saldana; and Merced “Shadow” Cambero Jr., who is a fugitive. Saldana and Avila are already serving state prison sentences of life without the possibility of parole for murder -- Avila for Bowser’s killing, Saldana for an unrelated case. Martinez was arrested in 2004 on the charges in this case. Cazares is in custody on a parole violation.
In the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson, the four defendants, their floor shackles hidden behind a desk, have eschewed the gang look. Dressed in ties and sweaters, they peruse legal documents over reading glasses and confer with their attorneys, sharing laughs with legal aides.
At one point, prosecutors displayed photos of their gangbanging days on a screen above their heads. Three sported large tattoos of the gang’s mascot -- a bullet-pierced skull with a fedora and a fur collar. Martinez apparently grew his hair to mask a tattoo on his head that says “43 Kills for Thrills.”
The Avenues gang -- named for the avenues that cross Figueroa Street -- has a long and murderous history going back at least to the 1950s, when it was linked to many shootouts and killings. According to one news report, its ranks swelled after the forced displacement of hundreds of families from Chavez Ravine, now home to Dodger Stadium, and the Rose Hill areas.
Highland Park, blanketing the hills and ravines northeast of downtown, has long been mostly Latino, although more diverse than parts of the Eastside. Asians, African Americans and non-Latino whites make up about 30% of a population of about 64,000, and professionals of every color are moving in to fix up the area’s Craftsman homes.
The Avenues claim all of Highland Park and parts of Cypress Park, Glassell Park and Eagle Rock as their turf. They gained national notoriety in 1995 when several members opened fire on a car that made a wrong turn into a Cypress Park alley, killing 3-year-old Stephanie Kuhen.
Like Eastside gangs, the Avenues are linked to the Mexican Mafia prison gang, known on the street as Eme after the Spanish word for the letter M. Law enforcement officials fear gang hate crimes could become more common as violence between the Mexican Mafia and Aryan Brotherhood spreads to the streets outside.
In a mid-1990s federal racketeering case against 12 Eme defendants, an Avenues leader named Alex “Pee Wee” Aguirre was convicted of murdering an unpaid consultant who helped Edward James Olmos make “American Me,” a 1992 movie that the gang did not like.
One informant in the current case told an FBI agent that the Eme had ordered the Avenues to “Kill any blacks ... on sight.” The judge ruled out testimony about the Eme connection as being too prejudicial.
This case came about when Los Angeles police detectives took the Wilson killing, then 3 years old, to the U.S. attorney’s office in 2002. They hit a statutory obstacle in trying to bring Saldana, who had not yet been convicted of his other crimes, to trial in state court. The case grew from there -- based largely on the testimony of Jose de la Cruz, the only Avenues member convicted in the Wilson murder, and Jesse Diaz, an Avenues member in prison for attempted murder of a police officer.
If the campaign of terror the prosecution alleges indeed occurred, it is difficult to say if it pushed African Americans out of Highland Park, or kept others from coming in.
In 1990, there were 1,246 African Americans in Highland Park. In 2000, there were 1,974, according to census records.
Warren Hill, Sr., 58, moved to Highland Park from South Los Angeles 15 years ago. As a black man, he has never been harassed by the Avenues. But he keeps his head down when they’re around, as he did with black gangs in his old neighborhood. And he keeps off the street at night.
“If you have Avenues standing right there,” he said one recent afternoon, sitting at a bus stop, “I could sit down here and they wouldn’t do a thing. It’s not them harassing blacks period.
“It’s what teenagers do. If my son walked by them, and shot them a look, then there could be trouble.”