He showed up at Bible study every Thursday and volunteered at peacemaking soccer matches for members of MS-13, his tattoos betraying his own history with the notorious gang.
As a “peace ambassador” for a Los Angeles nonprofit funded with public money, it was Wilfredo Vides’ job to steer young people clear of gangs. For those who’d joined one, his role was to convince them to leave, as he had.
Or as he said he had.
Vides was one of 22 individuals arrested last month in a federal takedown of MS-13’s Fulton clique, a cell of the transnational gang that claims swaths of the San Fernando Valley as its turf and is accused of murdering and dismembering its enemies in the mountains above Los Angeles. Vides was far from the reformed gang member he claimed to be, authorities say.
He acted as the Fulton clique’s “facilitator, advisor, supporter, and protector,” prosecutors allege, hiding gang members from the police, coordinating drug deals with an MS-13 clique in Maryland, and “intimidating those he perceived to be cooperating with law enforcement.”
At the time of his arrest, Vides was employed as a gang intervention counselor by Communities in Schools of the San Fernando Valley and Greater Los Angeles, a well-established nonprofit that has received millions of dollars in city, county and federal contracts since its founding in 1994.
An indictment charging Vides with accessory to attempted murder didn’t detail his employment as a gang intervention worker, but William “Blinky” Rodriguez, who co-founded Communities in Schools of the San Fernando Valley and Greater Los Angeles and serves as executive director, confirmed Vides worked for his nonprofit from August 2018 until his July 13 arrest.
Among his duties for the organization, Vides mentored a Panorama High School student who is accused of taking part in an MS-13 killing and later stabbing a student at his high school in the back and stomach. Vides hid his mentee from the police after the stabbing, prosecutors allege.
Vides has pleaded not guilty to the charge of accessory to attempted murder. He is being held in a federal lockup. His attorney, Angel Navarro, said he was recently assigned to the case and could not comment on the government’s allegations.
Gang diversion programs such as Rodriguez’s often turn to former gang members to counsel young people who are in gangs or at risk of joining one. They have credibility and life experience that outsiders lack, proponents of the programs say, and police and city leaders have credited the programs with contributing to decreased levels of gang violence in Los Angeles. But in some instances, intervention workers have been accused of enabling — or in Vides’ case, belonging to — the very gangs whose influence they were hired to counteract.
Bobby Arias, who co-founded Communities in Schools of the San Fernando Valley and Greater Los Angeles and serves as president, acknowledged that Vides’ arrest had thrown a harsh glare on the organization and raised questions about whether its employees had in fact left gang life behind.
But he and Rodriguez insist it shouldn’t discount nearly three decades of progress they’ve made toward brokering peace, nor the work they continue to do each day: tattoo removal, helping gang members find work and go to school after leaving prison, home visits to young people at risk of joining a gang.
“We’d be remiss if we didn’t own up to this, but we’re an agency that believes in second chances,” Arias said. “Sometimes third and fourth ones.”
The nonprofit has no affiliation with Communities in Schools, a national organization that works to keep kids from dropping out of school, nor with Communities in Schools of Los Angeles, an affiliate of the national group, according to Steve Majors, a spokesman for Communities in Schools.
Rodriguez said he met Vides in June 2018 when Vides came to his North Hills office seeking help with his immigration status. Vides has been living in the country illegally, according to a summary of his case filed in federal court.
Vides volunteered at a soccer match that the group held at USC for members of MS-13, Rodriguez said, and began attending Bible study every Thursday at the North Hills office.
“He seemed like a stand-up guy,” said Rodriguez, who has worked to stem gang violence since 1990, when his son was killed in a drive-by shooting. He hired Vides in August 2018 as a “peace ambassador” — someone who, as Rodriguez put it, could “throw a glass of water on the fire.”
Vides told Rodriguez he had been a member of MS-13.
“He made it known where he was from,” Rodriguez recalled, “but he said he’d not been involved for a while and was moving forward with his life.”
Vides was vetted before being hired, and a background check showed he had no criminal record and wasn’t on parole, Rodriguez said. And his history with MS-13 “gave him license to operate,” Rodriguez said, “to get in there and work with that community.”
Rodriguez’s nonprofit received a federal grant earmarked specifically to stem the influence of MS-13 and its nemesis, the 18th Street gang. The grant went toward hiring intervention workers to “provide proactive peacekeeping,” and to support and offer young people an alternative to gang life, Mayor Eric Garcetti wrote in a 2017 letter to the City Council. Garcetti’s office administered the grant and funds for Communities in Schools through its Gang Reduction and Youth Development program.
Vides has been suspended without pay from his gang intervention post, according to Garcetti’s office.
Rodriguez said he was stunned to learn Vides had been arrested, accused of advising and protecting a violent gang.
“Here’s a guy that’s been very, very passionate about his work,” he said. “All the staff liked him. Absolutely, without a doubt, it was a shock.”
While working for the nonprofit, Vides mentored a number of young men, including Steven Emmanuel Linares, a former student at Panorama High School, Rodriguez said.
Linares, now 19, is an alleged member of the Fulton clique who was indicted alongside Vides. Linares, prosecutors say, was among a dozen MS-13 members from three cliques who stabbed and hacked Elvin Hernandez to death with knives and a machete in the Angeles National Forest in June 2017. Hernandez, 20, was stabbed more than 100 times, a medical examiner found.
Three months after Hernandez’s slaying, prosecutors allege, Linares attacked a student at Panorama High after school ended for the day, stabbing him in the stomach and back as he tried to scale a fence.
Mark Sedlander, Linares’ attorney, said in an email: “We are investigating the allegations in the indictment, which are just that: allegations. Mr. Linares is presumed innocent and we look forward to defending him in court.”
Vides and another gang member hid Linares from the police after the school stabbing, prosecutors say.
A month later, Brayan Andino, a 16-year-old sophomore at Panorama High, was lured into a car at Lake Balboa Park, driven to the Angeles National Forest and stabbed to death by members and associates of the Fulton clique, prosecutors say. Brayan’s remains were thrown into a canyon. The body was found a month later when a wildfire cleared the area of brush. Several of Brayan’s alleged killers were his classmates.
Rodriguez said Vides did not work in Panorama High or any other schools. To his knowledge, he said, Vides and Linares were the only alleged MS-13 members indicted last month who were involved with his nonprofit.
According to the indictment, on Aug. 30, 2018 — two weeks to the day after he was hired as a gang intervention counselor — Vides and two associates attended a hearing for three alleged MS-13 members at a San Fernando courthouse. Their intention was to intimidate the three, who Vides and his associates suspected might cooperate with the authorities, prosecutors say.
In an alleged attempt at witness tampering, one of Vides’ companions “announced that he believed someone was cooperating with law enforcement,” the indictment says. The men who accompanied Vides to court aren’t identified and haven’t been charged.
The indictment also cites Vides’ public Facebook page, including a profile picture taken at an overlook in the Angeles National Forest — a mile from where Vides’ alleged associates hacked a 21-year-old man to death a month earlier, prosecutors say. Vides posed in another Facebook picture with Angel Guzman, who is accused of removing the man’s heart with a machete.