On the West Side of San Bernardino, most everyone knew Johnny and Gilbert Agudo.
They’d grown up in the tight-knit barrio.
Handsome and charismatic, they were the presidents of two cliques of the West Side Verdugo street gang: Johnny, 31, of 7th Street Locos and Gilbert, 27, of the Little Counts.
United, they led their gangs in feuds with rivals from other parts of town.
But then things took an unexpected turn.
Early on the morning of July 9, 2000, police responded to calls of a shooting behind a West Side duplex. The Agudos and two half-brothers, Marselino and Anthony Luna, lay dead or dying in what would become the biggest gang slaying in recent San Bernardino history.
Eight years later, the so-called Dead Presidents case is underway in a San Bernardino courtroom. Closing arguments are expected this week.
Prosecutors have charged Luis “Maldito” Mendoza, a boyhood friend of the Agudos and a 7th Street gang member, with organizing the killings. Also charged is a member of Mendoza’s crew, Lorenzo Arias. Both could face the death penalty.
Mendoza’s cousin Froylan Chiprez -- another alleged shooter -- is believed to be hiding in Mexico. John Ramirez, part of Mendoza’s crew, pleaded guilty and testified against Mendoza and Arias.
The arrests of Mendoza and the others shocked residents. All were members of Johnny Agudo’s 7th Street Locos. No West Side gang ever killed one of its own.
The Mendozas were from Mexico, while the Agudos were a Mexican American family with decades in the barrio. The arrival of Mexican immigrants had upset some Latinos in the neighborhood. But Mendoza’s brother was Johnny Agudo’s best friend and together they started 7th Street Locos.
“They grew up together,” said Cheryl Kersey, the prosecutor handling the case. “Nobody ever anticipated this.”
The story of the Dead Presidents is a tale of neighborhood bonds torn apart by power, betrayal and greed, prosecutors say. Behind it all, they say, is the Mexican Mafia prison gang, which in many Southern California barrios has turned gang members against one another.
“You grow up with somebody 15 or 20 years and he tries to kill you,” said a gang member who grew up with the Agudos and Mendozas, and requested anonymity for fear of reprisal. “Something’s wrong there.”
San Bernardino’s West Side is a flatland of wooden houses, small markets and vacant lots that has always been separate from the rest of the city.
The Santa Fe railroad, built in the late 1800s, divided the West Side from downtown. In the 1960s, the 215 Freeway, with offramps only heading east, “strangled the business district here, which was extremely active,” said Esther Estrada, a city councilwoman who grew up in the neighborhood.
But the West Side hung in.
Santa Fe’s train repair shop employed more than 1,000 people, most of them West Siders. Men also worked at Kaiser Steel’s factory in Fontana, or at Norton Air Force base.
Kids “never thought we were poor,” said Mercedes Agudo, the victims’ mother. “We knew it, but they didn’t.”
While gangs were a strong presence in the neighborhood when her kids were young, Agudo said, there were other diversions too. In the early 1980s, break dancing gripped the West Side and kept many kids out of trouble.
The neighborhood’s best dancers were in Breaking Crew, organized by Mercedes Agudo, and made up of her sons, Johnny and Gilbert, and numerous cousins and friends, such as Marselino and Anthony Luna.
One rival was the Mendozas’ Break Force, organized by Luis Mendoza and his older brother, Issa, who came from Mexico as children. The Mexican American kids chided them for how they dressed and their immigrant ways. Rival camps of youths developed.
“They were Mexicanos. They weren’t from here,” said Patricia Gonzalez, mother of Marselino Luna.
Yet the neighborhood united against outside threats.
In 1983, the school district moved to close Pacific High School. The West Side loved the school. Barrio kids anchored its top-flight wrestling team.
Angel Agudo, the Agudos’ elder brother, organized to save it. Mothers, grandfathers, even gang members got involved. But the district prevailed, and the school closed.
Then in 1984, Kaiser Steel closed, laying off dozens of neighborhood men. In 1992, Norton Air Force Base also closed, taking 10,000 jobs. Then, Santa Fe Railroad took its shop and a thousand jobs to Topeka, Kan.
New drugs arrived in the barrio.
In the early 1980s, said Mercedes Agudo, “the thing that really destroyed a lot of families was PCP” -- an animal tranquilizer that makes humans impervious to pain.
Crack came in the late 1980s. Kids dealing dope replaced men with union jobs.
Youths stopped dancing to form gang cliques and feud over street corners. Families fleeing the L.A. gang-and-crack nightmare brought more of it to San Bernardino.
Violence skyrocketed. Many West Side youths went to prison.
Among them were Johnny and Gilbert Agudo. They began using PCP, became hardened gang members and were in and out of prison, authorities said. Johnny became president of the 7th Street Locos; Gilbert was president of Little Counts.
New immigrants began moving in. They took the menial jobs that neighborhood youths had counted as theirs. Old-time Mexican American families felt invaded.
Meanwhile, from prison the Mexican Mafia, known as the Eme, Spanish for the letter M, imposed new rules on Southern California Latino street gangs.
Through the 1990s, Eme associates directed gangs to tax drug dealers in their barrios. Disobeying meant death.
West Side gangs acquiesced.
“I saw a change within the gangs,” said Leo Duarte, a native West Sider and retired Mexican Mafia expert with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “When an [Eme member] sends orders, they comply. Every time somebody got out on parole, orders came with them: Get crews going, start taxing.”
The Eme replaced Kaiser and Santa Fe as the influential economic organization in West Side life, Duarte said. Obedience to it overrode barrio loyalty.
Who had “the keys” -- Eme-ordained authority to run barrio taxing -- became the predominant issue for once-independent gangs, Duarte said.
In 1999, Johnny Agudo was arrested with guns as he prepared to carry out an Eme-ordered killing, Kersey said in an interview. To reduce his prison sentence, he told police that Salvador “Toro” Hernandez, a parolee, had guns and drugs at his house, Kersey said.
Hernandez, from Rancho Cucamonga, is a reputed Eme member who controls West Side drug dealing, according to Kersey, Duarte and West Side gang members. He was arrested with guns and drugs and went to prison for their possession, Kersey said.
In court, gang members and Kersey alleged that Hernandez allegedly put a “greenlight” -- a death warrant -- on Johnny Agudo. A gang that doesn’t execute a member greenlighted by the Eme faces a greenlight on all its members, Kersey said in an interview.
Gilbert Agudo had “the keys” to the West Side, Ramirez testified in court. Gilbert volunteered to kill his brother, Ramirez testified.
No one believed he would, Ramirez said
“Gilbert was very good at politics,” Kersey said in an interview. “He was in the midst of talking people out of killing Johnny.”
Neighbors remember that while Johnny Agudo was in prison, Luis Mendoza took over 7th Street Locos.
Johnny Agudo was released from prison in July 2000. Mendoza offered to kill him if Gilbert did not, according to Kersey and court testimony.
The night of the killings, Mendoza and his crew met with the Agudos and others at the West Side duplex.
There, in a darkened driveway, men who’d grown up together faced off over the greenlight on Johnny Agudo and who would run the neighborhood for the Eme, according to court testimony.
Amid the argument, the shooters allegedly opened fire and mortally wounded the two pairs of brothers. Johnny Agudo died with a gun in his pocket.
“They were family,” said John Ramirez, who pleaded guilty in the case but claims to have done no shooting. “Everyone in it was family.”
Gilbert Agudo was killed to prevent his retaliation; the Lunas because they were witnesses, Kersey alleges.
Mendoza “knew if he did this for Eme, then he’d be in charge,” Kersey said in an interview. “He’d be running the streets.”
Eight years later, the West Side neighborhood remains weak and fragmented.
Since the killings, the Eme has had trouble finding trustworthy soldiers to step up and work the streets, Kersey said.
“Wipe out two brothers and it’s had an effect up to today,” she said, because “this code about not killing each other is out the window.”
Angel Agudo, whose family left the West Side, said he was not surprised when his brothers were slain.
Given their positions in the Eme, “you’re either going to go into the upper echelon or somebody’s going to take you out,” he said. “The greed, the envy, the struggle for power -- it all ate away at the neighborhood unity.”