Federal hate crime charges filed against four reputed Latino gang members from Highland Park

JENNIFER ENGLISH (City News Service) | August 20, 2004

LOS ANGELES -Federal hate crime charges filed against four reputed Latino gang members from Highland Park allege they murdered a black man and conspired to force black residents out of the area, prosecutors said today. The indictment was announced after one of the defendants, 27-year-old Alejandro Martinez, was arrested by an FBI SWAT team, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Martinez is charged along with the three other Latinos — two are already imprisoned — with a conspiracy that led to the murder of 38-year-old Kenneth Kurry Wilson, who was fatally shot in Highland Park on April 18, 1999.

The four also face hate crime charges for allegedly murdering Wilson as part of their gang’s campaign to keep black people out of the neighborhood. The final count alleges that all four used a gun during commission of the conspiracy and hate crimes. All four alleged members of the Avenues 43 gang — a clique of the larger Avenues, or Avenidas, gang — could face the death penalty if convicted, prosecutors said. The other three are identified as: — Gilbert Saldana, 26, who prosecutors allege was one of the shooters in Wilson’s murder. He is serving a life sentence for another murder, prosecutors said. — Merced Cambero, 26, the second alleged triggerman in Wilson’s murder. An arrest warrant has been issued, but he remains at large. — Fernando Cazares, 24, who is serving a 34-month sentence in state prison on unrelated charges. Prosecutors allege the four had a number of violent run-ins with black residents in the neighborhood.

In July 2000, Cazares was driving when an unidentified co-conspirator got out of the car and used a metal object to attack a black man who had been walking in the area with a Latina, the indictment states. In 1999, Saldana and Cambero were among a group that attacked another black man who was running in a park in the area, according to the indictment, which alleges that Saldana used a gun to pistol-whip the man. On the night Wilson was killed, the four defendants were allegedly riding in a stolen van when they saw the victim parking a car on a street claimed by their gang.

They allegedly agreed Wilson should be killed, and Saldana and Cambero got out of the van and each opened fire, according to the indictment. Prosecutors also allege the conspiracy had links to the murder of another black man, Christopher Bowser, who the gang was trying to force out of the neighborhood. Martinez, Saldana, and Cambero are accused of assaulting Bowser, after which Martinez was allegedly involved along with a co-conspirator in a second assault on Bowser on Oct. 26, 2000 — at which time he was also robbed. In early December 2000, Martinez talked on the phone to two co-conspirators and asked them to kill Bowser, the indictment alleges. The U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles, Debra Yang, said the Avenues gang has terrorized Highland Park for too long. She said the defendants are accused of “committing one of the most heinous crimes — murdering someone simply because of his skin color — and we will prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law.”

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