A day before Thanksgiving 1998, Donald "Pato" Schubert was shot to death in the carport of his apartment building in the San Gabriel Valley city of Rosemead.
A member of the Lomas Rosemead street gang pleaded guilty to killing Schubert, a plumber and former gang member.
With that, the case was filed away, forgotten by nearly everyone except Schubert's family.
Then, earlier this month, the case suddenly returned to life. At a hearing in Pasadena Superior Court guarded by a dozen deputies, including two SWAT officers, a judge ordered Eulalio "Lalo" Martinez, 46, a reputed member of the Mexican Mafia prison gang, to stand trial for Schubert's killing.
Martinez has sat in a maximum-security cell at Pelican Bay State Prison for nearly 15 years. But law enforcement officers and gang members say he controls the Lomas Rosemead street gang, ordering members to funnel him taxes collected from local drug dealers and directing killings, often by using notes with micro-writing -- known as kites -- smuggled out of the cellblock.
If proved, the case against him would support a belief widely held by law enforcement officers and gang members that many homicides that appear to be simple street-gang fights are instead contract murders ordered by members of the Mexican Mafia, known as the Eme, Spanish for M.
The case is noteworthy because rarely are Eme members prosecuted for street homicides. Often, any link between a specific killing and the Eme is obscure. Moreover, once an actual triggerman is prosecuted, investigators often have no time to dig further into why the crime was committed. Even when a detective believes there's something more to a killing, a link is often hard to prove.
The case against Martinez, for example, relies on the words of three convicted murderers, one a former Eme member and another a crack dealer who said he once saw a note from Martinez ordering Schubert's death. No such note is in evidence in the case.
Much of the case hinges on Daniel Ahumada, the crack dealer and Lomas gang member who pleaded guilty to killing Schubert. Recently, Ahumada, serving 15 years to life in prison, has come forward to implicate others, including Martinez.
At the recent hearing, Martinez's lawyer, Michael Belter, said the case constructs only a "very tenuous link" to Martinez by "three men who have every motive in the world" to lie. "We have no physical evidence. We have faded memories," he said.
Through a family member, Martinez declined a request for an interview.
Despite the difficulty of proving a link between street killings and the prison gang, the reality of such ties is taken as true by many law enforcement officials and gang members who say the Eme has gained control over street gangs in the last 15 years.
"Usually when an Eme member has a neighborhood sewn up, there's no gang slaying that's not approved" by him, said a Lomas gang member who said he was Martinez's lieutenant on the streets briefly a few years ago. The man, like several others interviewed, spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing retaliation from the gang.
Gang members do the Eme's bidding out of either fear or adulation for men they've usually never seen and know only as the "big homies," gang members say.
"The gangs don't run the gangs no more," said a Lomas Rosemead gang member who is doing time in state prison. "Everything's getting run from inside here."
Law enforcement officials say that with gang members as its street soldiers, the Mexican Mafia has evolved into a region-wide organized crime syndicate. The Eme collects taxes from drug dealers and sometimes prostitutes and even unlicensed ice cream vendors on the street.
They also say the gang orders murders on the streets and riots in county jails and thus is a force affecting public policy far beyond prison walls.
"The average gang killing is not always a gang killing," said Rene Enriquez, a long-time Eme member who dropped out in 2002 and is in prison in protective custody. The Eme "has this mythical ability to get people to do its bidding."
A veteran homicide detective believes that included the killing of Pato Schubert.
Sheriff's Det. Frank Gonzales, a year from retirement now, has delved into unsolved killings in the Lomas Rosemead barrio for 13 years.
Several of the homicides appeared to be simple street-gang killings, he said. "On the surface, they all looked that way," Gonzales said. "Until you had sources, you would think it was a regular gang murder. But fortunately, people opened up."
Gonzales believes Martinez ordered half a dozen murders, though he declines to name them, saying he hopes to have charges filed over the next year.
Schubert's killing is the first to go to court.
Lomas Rosemead is a Mexican American gang dating to the 1950s and based in the poor neighborhood covering the hills above Rosemead, an unincorporated piece of L.A. County territory that had neither sidewalks nor sewers until the 1980s.
The gang and barrio were profiled in Luis Rodriguez's classic 1993 book on Latino street gangs, "Always Running."
Rodriguez, a former Lomas member, described an insular barrio with a gang that warred with other San Gabriel Valley rivals but took orders only from others in the neighborhood. At that time, the idea that anyone would kill a fellow gang member who wasn't a snitch was unthinkable.
At first, as Gonzales investigated shootings in the neighborhood, he got nowhere. Gonzales grew up in a Mexican barrio and knows that kids growing up in such neighborhoods learn early not to talk to police officers. Cultivating sources took years.
"A lot of times it doesn't happen in the first meeting or the second, third or fourth meeting. They're going to test your credibility, your word," Gonzales said. "You think 'this interview I'm going to learn a lot,' and you walk away with nothing. But you keep on trying."
Through the years, as Gonzales looked for a friendly face in Lomas, the Eme extended its control over the neighborhood. Loyalty to friends was supplanted by loyalty to the Mexican Mafia. Barrio gang unity dissolved. As years passed, more Lomas gang members died.
"They were killing each other off," said Det. Ruben "B.J." Bejarano, who has worked on the cases with Gonzales in recent years.
People in the neighborhood "didn't know who to trust any more," Gonzales said. "More and more people were being killed from within the gang. As I kept knocking on doors, they were telling me about other unsolved murders" believed connected to Martinez.
The detective now believes that on Martinez's orders, Lomas Rosemead gang members began turning on homeboys who were lifelong friends.
"I believe they weren't doing the work he wanted done," Gonzales said.
The killings, say the detectives and several current and former gang members, may also have stemmed from Martinez's desire to punish people he believed responsible for the murders during the 1990s of his brothers, Avelardo and Genaro.
"It was common knowledge among a lot of members that he wanted people responsible for killing his brother [Avelardo] to be killed," said Enriquez, the former Eme member. "He wanted other people to do it for him."
"It's saving face. He cannot let anybody kill his family member and get away with it," said another long-time gang member and Eme associate. "He was very hard line."
Gonzales believes Schubert may have given a ride to a man who helped kill Martinez's brother, Avelardo, without knowing the killing had just taken place.
Martinez was due to be paroled from prison in September, after serving 14 years for robbery. Hours before the parole, Gonzales faxed to prison authorities the case charging him with Schubert's death.
"A lot of people are probably happy he's still in jail," the gang member said.
Martinez is scheduled to be arraigned today. A trial is expected some time next year.
Schubert's family members say they hope the case brings an end to nine years of wondering.
Early on, "word on the street was that it wasn't what we had thought -- a street crime," said Schubert's younger brother, Sterling, a junior high school principal.
"You know what it isn't and that makes you want to know what it is," he said. "When we said, 'What?' people couldn't answer -- either couldn't or wouldn't."