How Highland Park’s Latino gang targets African-Americans

Avenues of Death

How Highland Park?s Latino gang targets African-Americans
Thursday, July 14, 2005 – 12:00 am

Luisa Prudhomme proudly shows off photo after photo of her son: As a newborn baby boy swathed in a white bonnet and blanket. As a 2-year-old bathing in the bathroom sink. As a 5-year-old dressed in Michael Jackson attire. And a teenager checking out his first car, a used red Escort. And wearing cap and gown, grinning ear to ear at his high school graduation. She abruptly stops on this June day. ?Anthony graduated high school nine years ago today.?

Prudhomme, who is white, passes over the last photo of her African-American son as a 21-year-old man, sporting a mustache and goatee, hanging out with a friend and flashing the peace sign. ?He was full of peace and love,? she said, sitting at Anthony?s favorite Highland Park restaurant. ?He thought he had the best of both worlds being black and white. I feel like I let him out to the wolves, and the wolves ate him up.?

On a cool November night in 2000, just a five-minute walk from Tacos el Michoacano, members of the Avenues gang awakened Anthony in the basement room he rented for $200 a month on a quiet, tree-lined street overlooking the hills of Highland Park and executed him because of the color of his skin.

?The detective told me that if my son was Latino he would be alive today,? said the mother, who wears a silver chain with a photo of her son in a heart-shaped pendant. ?I had no idea how dangerous it was for blacks to live in Highland Park. His father lives in South Central. I was more worried about that.?

Police blame three killings of African-American men on the Avenues gang in Highland Park, which has led to a federal hate-crimes indictment and once again landed the northeast L.A. gang in the national spotlight. A decade ago, it was the killing of 3-year-old Stephanie Kuhen by a clique of the Avenues that put the gang in the cross hairs of law enforcement. The little girl?s murder by gang members who fired on her family?s car as her stepfather, lost, tried to turn around on a dead-end street, intensified efforts by police to eradicate the 800-member gang from neighborhoods just north of downtown L.A., where the forces of gentrification are flooding the area with new families seeking a safe, urban life.

Today, the continuing carnage on the streets of Highland Park and neighboring Glassell Park, Cypress Park and parts of Eagle Rock are cruel testimony to the mixed results of that campaign. Federal indictments, a gang injunction and one of the more ambitious series of gang trials in Los Angeles history, which began in 2003 and has so far produced three convictions for seven killings, hit the Avenues hard, but violence has continued by the gang and its rivals. Police blame the Avenues alone for more than half of the 200-plus homicides in the northeast L.A. neighborhoods since the early 1990s.

What makes Highland Park?s gang wars particularly disturbing is the way victims are struck down in broad daylight on busy streets, sometimes involving people without gang ties. Since January, nine gang-related killings have hit the neighborhood, including 19-year-old Cynthia Portillo, a pregnant woman. Police give this account: Portillo was shot to death on a February afternoon as she walked down the street with an 18-year-old alleged member of the Drifters gang. Members of a gang called Highland Park had just terrified three people standing at a bus stop, asking them, ?Where you from?? before letting fly a hail of bullets. Then they came upon Portillo and her friend and asked them about their gang affiliation before firing off a round, striking Portillo in the head. Driving away, they fired at a teenager on a bicycle who fired back bursting their right rear tire. Police caught up with the gangsters moments later as they were parked on a side street.

The crackdowns on the Avenues? leaders, which have come in three waves over the past decade, have produced a fresh crop of gang members, and also made room for other gangs trying to set up shop in one of L.A.?s oldest neighborhoods.

?Avenues gang activity has decreased and other gangs have increased,? said LAPD Northeast gang supervisor Detective Robert Lopez. ?Other gangs are taking advantage of enforcement efforts and uncertainty in the Avenues. They are still leery because the Avenues are still formidable.?

Nearly a dozen Avenues gang members have been killed over the last couple of years because of internal strife, and they are still battling to fill the leadership vacuum created when their leaders went to prison.

The Avenues take their name from the numbered corridors that slice through Figueroa Street, Highland Park?s bustling yet economically poor main drag, home to Mexican grocery stores, check-cashing businesses, nail salons, swap meets, car washes, fast-food joints and a smattering of Mexican restaurants, galleries and nightclubs with a citywide draw. Steps from the 5-mile-long boulevard lie unpredictable hot spots, where violence breaks out amid 1920s historic Craftsman homes and bungalows, newly built luxury apartments just a stone?s throw from ramshackle homes with overgrown lawns and congested pockets of Section 8 low-rent apartments.

It has been nearly 10 years since Avenues boss and Mexican Mafia member Alex “Pee Wee” Aguirre was sentenced to a life term. He turned over partial control of the gang to his brother, Richard ?Little Pee Wee? Aguirre, who was only 14 when he assumed the role of shot-caller in 1995. His reign lasted until 2001, when he was charged in a string of murders. It wasn’t until this May that Little Pee Wee was convicted, a delay caused by the “difficult” task of getting gang members to cooperate with police. During the trial, two ex-Avenues members told shocking tales of robberies, assaults and murders. They gave details of life as tax collectors for the Mexican Mafia?s drug business and the penalties doled out to those who defied its will.

Hate target:
Christopher Bowser
FBI agent Jerry Fradella tells of the meetings a clique of Avenues held off and on with some 50 members at the Montecito Heights Recreation Center to talk about the blacks in the neighborhood and how they had to get rid of them.

?They thought there were too many around,? said Fradella. ?It is like a blanket policy for them.? John Berdin, who recently retired as LAPD?s Northeast homicide supervisor, said the Avenues have a well-documented history of attacking blacks dating to the early ?90s, when three black family members were shot and injured by gang members after they moved into an apartment on 58th and Benner streets in Highland Park.

?There are a lot of motivating factors,? he said. ?There is a lot of hatred between Hispanics and blacks within the prison system. What happens on the inside translates to the outside. When there is an incident inside the penal system, it spreads to hate crimes on the street.? All that matters is the color of your skin.

Anthony Prudhomme was an easy target for the Avenues. He was naive, trustworthy and a friend to all. The 6-foot-3, 155-pound free spirit was born at Glendale Adventist Medical Center on November 27, 1978. ?It was a beautiful day,? said his mom, who was 19 at the time. ?I was watching the sun set when he was born.? Life soon turned rocky. His parents split up shortly after he was born. Broke and unable to pay for her baby?s diapers, Luisa joined the U.S. Navy for medical benefits. Her ex-husband cared for Anthony for two months so she could go to boot camp. She and her son were reunited in Virginia Beach, which was Luisa?s first assignment. She did tours of duty in Hawaii, San Diego and Japan, and eventually became a petty officer third class. She left the military in 1988, and she and her son briefly lived in Germany with Anthony?s grandmother before returning to Pasadena to start over. Luisa remarried in 1991, and Anthony welcomed a brother into the world four years later.

Anthony graduated in 1996 from Blair High School in Pasadena, where he was voted ?Class Flirt? and ?Most Cheerful.? He got along well with jocks and nerds, and liked to help the underdog.

He took a job at Pier One Imports in La Ca?ada ?because it smelled the best? of all the places he applied, and he began taking classes at the L.A. Recording Workshop, aspiring to be a music producer. Music became his hobby. He played the keyboards. Musical talent ran in his family. He learned how to play from his uncle, who was a drummer in a local band. Anthony loved Wu-Tang Clan, Slum Village and Black Eyed Peas.

Anthony was also a hemp advocate and designed a bumper sticker with the slogan, ?Say No to Drugs, Say Yes to Hemp.?

He fought with his stepfather over his marijuana use and moved out of his parents? home in the San Fernando Valley, renting the basement suite in Highland Park from his high school math tutor, who lived in the main part of the rustic house, overlooking York Street and the neighboring hills.

?I was worried about him financially,? said Luisa. ?I begged him not to move. He said, ?No, Mom. It is time?. I don?t know why I didn?t want him to move. I had never seen him happier. He was so content. It was the first time he was on his own. We went to IKEA and I bought him a couch, one that pulls out. I never dreamed he would be killed on that bed two months later.?

When he wasn?t at work, school or with his girlfriend, Anthony had recently begun to hang out with a group of roofers working at the house next door. He even befriended one who would stop by for a quick toke.

The Wednesday before his murder, Anthony called up his mother, whom he hoped would convince his stepfather to give his friend, Lenny, a job at his trucking company. ?I told him he should worry about himself,? she said. ?I was worried about him, and he was worried about his friend.?

Mother and son talked again on November 2, the day before he died. ?He wanted to know if I would make German food. If I knew it was his last day on earth . . .?

Later that evening, Anthony received a call from a friend who wanted to stop by to see him. Anthony turned down the offer and said he had to get to work by 6 a.m. to unload a truck. He never made it. Around 2 a.m., two men broke into Anthony?s apartment and shot him twice in the back of the head. They used a pillow to muffle the sound, but the gunshots awakened his landlord sleeping upstairs, who called police. The gunmen escaped in a van as patrol cars pulled up.

Nearly a year later, an informant told police that a fellow gang member from the Avenues said he and another gangster had done the ?murder on the hill.? On December 5, 2001, Porfirio ?Dreamer? Avila, an acquaintance of one of the roofers working on the house next door, was arrested and charged with the murder of Anthony. He belonged to the 43rd Aves, a splinter group of the Avenues. His accomplice was never charged. Police believe Anthony was killed because he was black, but ruled his death a robbery gone bad because they didn?t have enough evidence to charge Avila with a hate crime.

Avila was convicted of murdering Anthony and another African-American man ? Christopher Bowser, 28, who was killed one month later. Bowser was shot once in the back of the head while waiting at a bus stop on Figueroa Street on his way to visit friends. Avila and another gunman jumped out of a car, ran up to him and fired. The father of four died instantly. The police speculated that Bowser was killed for filing a police report alleging that an Avenues gang member had robbed him of a gold chain. Bowser had been regularly chased down the street, threatened and on at least one occasion beaten by members of the 43rd Aves, who ruled the turf where Bowser lived with his mother on Avenue 44 since 1989. ?I was moving away from the gangbanging on Hoover,? said Bowser?s mother Angel Brown. ?They were always calling him racial names. He said he would end up being a statistic, the way they were chasing him. He didn?t do nothing to them.?

Bowser had filed at least three police reports against the gang, she said. Don Petrie, an African-American friend of Bowser?s since elementary school, lived across the street from him and his mother in Highland Park. He said that both he and Bowser regularly escaped beatings and had bottles thrown at them by the 43rd Aves. Petrie said that gang members would drive up and down their block looking for them.

?When we were kids it was fine, but when we got older it was a problem,? he said. ?They started chasing and calling us niggers. They told us to get out of the neighborhood.?

Petrie and his mother moved out of the area in 1996, after three years of relentless attacks.

?They ran us out of Highland Park,? he said. ?I was fearful for my life. I knew other guys from other gangs, and they never gave me any problems. They used to tell us that Avenues don?t like blacks. They would tell us to be careful.?

FBI agent Fradella said Avenues members often talked about how much they disliked Bowser. ?They knew Bowser, and he really irritated them and would walk around with his boom box,? he said. ?He was a good runner and they would chase him.?

At the time of Prudhomme?s and Bowser?s deaths, allegations of another hate crime were already on the radar of federal authorities with the killing of Kenneth Curry Wilson. He was gunned down on April 18, 1999, while parking his Cadillac on Avenue 52, a street claimed by the 43rd Aves. The 38-year-old African-American had been visiting a friend when gang members drove by in a stolen van and saw him. Three of them allegedly jumped out of the vehicle, and shot him several times.

In 2004, federal authorities, armed with new information, indicted four Avenues on federal-weapons and civil-rights charges in connection with Wilson?s and Bowser’s killings and are considering the death penalty. Alejandro ?Bird? Martinez, who allegedly called the hit on Bowser from jail, is one of the Avenues named. The indictment includes several other attacks against blacks, such as the beating of a man who was seen walking with a Latino woman, a murder plot against a man who had just moved into the neighborhood, an assault on a group of men playing basketball in Montecito Park, racial slurs directed at a girl in a supermarket, drawing chalk outlines of human bodies in the driveway of a black resident’s home and the beating of a black man who stopped to use a pay phone on the street. The trial, which covers incidents that occurred between 1997 and 2001, is set to begin in January. Detective Lopez says at least six racially motivated incidents have occurred since 2001, involving various cliques of the Avenues.

Luisa said that federal authorities are also looking into whether they can bring hate-crime charges against the second accomplice in Anthony?s death. The FBI?s Fradella confirmed that the agency is looking into it.

?You never dream you are going to bury your child,? Luisa said. ?You look back and wonder what you could have done, and you blame everyone except the murderer. He was too young. He didn?t have a chance to be famous. He was a star to me.?

Photo by Kevin Scanlon
The Avenues hasn?t always been a violent gang. Little is known about the Flores brothers, who started it as a club in the 1940s. Members sported gang tattoos that included a skull with a fedora and a bullet hole in the skull, or the letters LA, AVES, A and Avenidos. They dressed well, and many wore Frisco pants. In the early days, it was more of a neighborhood group of guys who hung out together. They settled fights with their fists. Back then, the gangs? rival was the Clover Street gang. As time went on, the Avenues got bigger and more violent and changed for the worst in 1969.

?We went to Vietnam, and the guys started to learn how to shoot,? said LAPD Northeast Senior Lead Officer Joe Galindo, who grew up with the Avenues in Highland Park. Soon disgruntled members formed a new gang in neighboring Cypress Park. Drive-by shootings became commonplace. The death toll rose. The introduction of drugs into the mix by the Mexican Mafia, or La Eme, in the 1980s accelerated the homicide rate.

The Avenues have cliques, each of which claims a gang territory based on where gang members live. The three main cliques are 43rd Aves, Avenues 57 and Cypress Avenues, all centered on the streets for which they are named.

Photo by Kevin Scanlon
By the early 1990s, the Avenues drew the attention of federal authorities concerned about the Mexican Mafia?s bid to extend the group?s influence outside of California?s prisons as well as the deadly infighting for control that ensued after the death of Mexican Mafia cofounder Joe Morgan, a one-time resident of Eagle Rock who died of cancer in prison. Although the Mexican Mafia has only a few hundred members, it has power over most of the 80,000 members of Southern California?s Latino street gangs, including the 800-plus Avenues. Street gangs abide by the rules of the Mafia, and in turn the Mafia provides protection for gang members when they are incarcerated. The Mafia controls the distribution of narcotics and earns revenue by taxing drug dealers in areas controlled by gangs. Failure to pay taxes is death, and there is a rule against cooperating with law enforcement. Allegiance to the Mafia is first, above family, religion and community.

The first major law-enforcement crackdown came in the early 1990s, when authorities sought to break the stranglehold of the prison Mafia on the Latino street gang. An 18-month federal investigation produced more than 300 secret videotapes and audio recordings. In the end, Alex ?Pee Wee? Aguirre, who has an Avenues clique called the Pee Wee Gangsters named after him, was indicted along with 12 others.

The six-month trial marked the first time that federal authorities in Los Angeles used the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statute against a gang. Most defendants were found guilty in May 1997 of murdering seven people, including three advisers on Edward James Olmos? 1992 Mexican Mafia movie American Me. Aguirre, 32 at the time, was sentenced to life in federal prison in Marion, Illinois.

The death of 3-year-old Stephanie Kuhen in 1995 catapulted the gang into national headlines. Kuhen and five other family members were returning from a birthday party on September 17 when they made a wrong turn down a dead-end alley dubbed ?Avenue of the Assassins? on Isabel Street in Cypress Park. Gang members surrounded their car and began to shoot inside. Kuhen was killed instantly, and her stepfather and younger brother were injured. A few days later, President Clinton denounced the gang and pledged federal money to curb gang violence.

Months later, the Community Law Enforcement and Recovery (CLEAR) program was born, freeing up $1 million in federal funding to hire a team of 14 more police officers, a few prosecutors and probation officers to concentrate on gang violence.

By 1997, gang crime in northeast L.A. went down 30 percent. That same year, Anthony Gabriel Rodriguez, Manuel Rosales Jr. and Hugo Gomez were given sentences of 54 years and eight months to life for the murder of Kuhen and the attempted murders of her stepfather and brother.

By 2003, gang crime was on the rise, prompting City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo to obtain an injunction against the Avenues that barred members from congregating within a nearly 10-square-mile radius.

?I grew up in a neighborhood where many of my acquaintances were in gangs or victims of gangs,? said Delgadillo, who was raised in Highland Park. ?There were kids that I grew up with who were smarter than me, better musicians than me, and they are not around today. We all lose for it.?

More recently, northeast L.A.?s Community Policing Advisory Board, which is made up of community members, started the Neighbor-to-Neighbor Mobilization project, which targets high-crime areas. On a monthly basis, volunteers walk door-to-door and pass out questionnaires and pamphlets with emergency numbers.

The higher cost of living has also played a part in the clean-up efforts. Housing prices have tripled in the area over the last five years. In the Highland Park flats, a two-bedroom bungalow sells for $385,000 to $425,000. In the hills, the same goes for $575,000. Rental apartment costs have also skyrocketed. A one-bedroom in Highland Park costs about $900 a month, a $400 increase from five years ago. As a result, low-income families are moving out to cheaper areas like Lancaster and Palmdale, which have seen an increase in gang-related activity over the years.

?People are moving away because they can?t afford to live in the area anymore,? said Officer Galindo. ?They are going to move into other areas and cause problems over there.?

When the elder Aguirre went off to prison in early 1995, control of the Avenues fell to his 14-year-old brother, ?Little Pee Wee? Aguirre. It was not easy for many of the hardcore gangsters to take orders from the 5-foot-4 shot-caller. Testimony from the spring trial showed how the elder Aguirre, through a network inside and outside of prison, continued to direct the powerful drug-distribution network.

The Avenues? boss received a life sentence for the murder of Mexican Mafia member Manuel ?Rocky? Luna, an unpaid adviser on Olmos? movie. The movie had angered Mexican Mafia members because of its depiction of the excesses of a gangster?s life. Luna?s body was found slumped over the wheel of a car in the parking lot of the Ramona Gardens housing project in 1993. Aguirre also was convicted of the attempted murder of six Cypress Park gang members, all of whom he had shaken down for tax money, and for conspiring to kill gang member Donald ?Little Man? Ortiz.

It was not long before Little Pee Wee got himself into trouble doing his and his brother?s bidding.

Joseph Torres, a 27-year-old reputed member of the Avenues, became the first known casualty of Little Pee Wee. He was found shot to death on Isabel Drive on July 22, 1995. According to court testimony, Torres was killed because he was collecting taxes in an area once run by Alex Aguirre but was giving the proceeds to another Mafia member, who was trying to expand his turf. He was executed for his disobedience.

On August 14, 1995, a reputed drug dealer named Alan Downey, 31, was found dead, lying across the front seat of his car on Eagle Rock Boulevard. His girlfriend Judy Gutierrez later told the police Downey worked for Alex Aguirre but refused to pay taxes to him for the drugs he was selling out of a bar in Highland Park.

?Somebody gave me the message that I would have to start paying taxes. Fuck that. I don?t pay rent to anybody,? he allegedly told Gutierrez.

According to court testimony, Downey had complained about the quality of the cocaine he was getting from the Aguirres, and had decided to get the drugs from another source.

Raul Rodriguez, a 27-year-old Alpine gang member, was killed on April 11, 1996, on the orders of Little Pee Wee. His crime against the Avenues: snitching on a gangbanger named Richard ?Stalker? Ramirez, whom he told police had killed someone at a New Year?s Eve party the year before.

At the time of his death, Rodriguez worked at a factory with his father making wood frames and lived at home with his parents in Highland Park. ?He was a very funny guy. He was the one who made us laugh at the house,? said Rodriguez’ sister, Rachel Sierra, whose parents have custody of Rodriguez? now 16-year-old daughter. ?I am not saying that he was an angel. I feel he didn?t deserve to be killed. My father suffers every day. My mother can?t even talk about it.?

It proved hard for the younger Aguirre to rule with the iron fist of his brother.

?That indictment [against the elder Aguirre] in 1995 broke the head off the serpent,? said Berdin. ?Other people have surfaced and a power struggle has ensued between different members of the Avenues street gang. Because Alex Aguirre was in federal custody he couldn?t maintain control. He had a group of people who were loyal to him, but as other people considered the man?s plight that he was doing life in another state, it left the door open for others to exert control.?

The powerful Alex Aguirre could do nothing to protect his brother from the testimony of two ex-Avenues? members, who knew enough about these three crimes to threaten Little Pee Wee?s hold on the gang.?

For Benjamin ?Sleepy? Garcia, becoming an Avenues gang member was a given. Hailing from the mostly Latino neighborhood of Glassell Park, Garcia was raised by a single mother and grew up with his five brothers on Division Street, an area so dangerous in the 1970s that gang members nicknamed it Little Vietnam because a lot of people were getting shot. Like his older brothers, he became enamored of the gang life early on. At the age of 11, Garcia was ?jumped in? ? a form of initiation ? into the Avenues by his 14-year-old brother who shot him in the leg.

?He beat me up pretty good and shot me with a BB gun, so I would know what it was like to be shot,? said the tall, heavy-set 37-year-old former gang member?turned-plumber at the May trial.

Garcia began gangbanging every chance he got when his older brother was shot and injured by rival gang members. He started carrying a gun, which he bought off a neighborhood drug dealer, at the age of 12. His daily activities included drive-by shootings at rival gang members, beatings, carjackings and kidnappings. His gun of choice was a 9 mm.

Cypress Park gang members shot him in the early 1980s after he was asked his gang affiliation. ?I took it as a gang challenge. That is the kind of mind I had.? He was shot again in 1986, this time by Highland Park gang members.

?If you are from a gang you got to say, ?Where you from?,?? he said. ?You have to deal with it. It doesn?t matter what they have coming at you. You had to act that way. There is no way around it. You would die saying Avenues. If you didn?t say Avenues, you would be in worse trouble. Even if you were going to lose.?

By 1989, Garcia had married and moved to San Diego, in an attempt to get away from the gang life. His stint as a law-abiding citizen lasted less than a year. ?I would get calls from my brother telling me who was getting killed. I felt like I owed them something so I went back in 1990.?

Garcia was ambitious and aspired to move up in the ranks of the Mexican Mafia and eventually become a soldier and then a full-fledged member. It was a matter of earning his stripes. He came a step closer to his dream when he met Alex ?Pee Wee? Aguirre in 1993. Aguirre, who had once dated Garcia?s sister, recruited the then-25-year-old gangster to help him take over the distribution of drugs from the Mexican Nationals, who were dealing drugs on Drew Street in Avenues territory.

?I wanted to be just like him,? he said. ?He was a mobster. A Mexican Mafia member. The Paisas [Mexican Nationals] were stabbing and robbing Avenues. They had the area sewed up. If you wanted drugs you had to go through them. Alex wanted to take it over.?

Garcia?s newfound relationship with Alex Aguirre was wrought with dangerous consequences. In 1994, the two gangsters had a falling out after Garcia borrowed Aguirre?s father?s vehicle and didn?t return it until the next day. As punishment, Aguirre took his gun and ordered Garcia to pay more taxes. Garcia refused, drawing the first of two ?green lights? ? marking him for death or assault for defying Aguirre?s will.

Garcia said he later patched things up with the older Aguirre, who introduced him in 1995 to Alan Downey. At the time, Downey was allegedly running drugs for Alex Aguirre in Burbank. Aguirre wanted Garcia to work closely with Downey and learn how to collect taxes. Eventually Garcia was given the territories of Burbank, Sunland and Vineland where he collected taxes from local drug dealers. He was well on his way until the elder Aguirre?s arrest in May 1995.

Garcia soon had a run-in with Little Pee Wee, who seemed to him to be too young ? and too small ? to be in charge.

??What is it going to take for you to believe I call the shots here?? he said to me. I said he was not a Mafia member,? said Garcia. ?I wanted to take him to his house and ask his mother. I would never hit the little kid because of his brother. I never tried to hurt him. I wanted to know if he was making things up. It was hard for me to believe I would take orders from a kid. It didn?t make sense to me.?

Downey was also having trouble with Little Pee Wee. Behind his back, he accused Little Pee Wee of selling him drugs at exorbitant rates and taxing him on top of it. He complained that Little Pee Wee smoked the profits and kept the money for himself. Garcia passed on the complaint to Little Pee Wee in front of a gang member?s house on Division Street. It was a big mistake. Garcia said Little Pee Wee pulled a gun on him, and the two gangsters struggled for it. Another gang member entered the fray and stabbed Garcia in the chin. The upshot: Little Pee Wee called Downey a liar and ordered Garcia to deal with him.

?I said the guy is worth more alive to me,? he said. ?Alan owed me a lot of money. I didn?t say I wouldn?t, but just that he had to pay me my money first.?

Later, in a meeting at Downey?s house, Garcia got into another fight with Little Pee Wee about the handling of Mafia business. ?He was running amok, taking people?s guns and robbing them. What he was doing was wrong. The mob is serious. If you didn?t do what he wanted, he would talk to his brother and his brother would ?put you in the hat? [place you on the ?green light? list]. He wasn?t throwing his weight around. He was throwing his brother?s weight around.?

Garcia said he ended up getting beaten up for his troubles that day. It was also the last time he saw Downey alive.

Garcia ended up in trouble again with the law in 1996 after he attacked two rival gang members who robbed him of his carpentry tools. He was sentenced to state prison for six years in 1997. While in prison, Garcia was approached by homicide detectives about the murders of Rodriguez, Downey and Torres. ?I was not forthcoming so they got pissed off,? he said. When he was paroled in 2001, Garcia cooperated with the police because he feared his parole officer might make trouble for him if he refused to help bring down Little Pee Wee and another gangster named Scott ?Gatto? Gleason, 37. ?I wanted to keep myself from going back to prison for some bullshit I didn?t do.?

A few months later, Little Pee Wee was arrested on suspicion of conspiring to kill Rodriguez, and for killing Torres and Downey. Gleason was already serving time in state prison. Garcia received immunity for testifying against them.

?I cooperated because they already knew,? he said. ?I didn?t lie about it. I told them the truth. I was already part of the puzzle.?

James Maxson joined the street gang called The Insane Ones (TIO) when he was 14. On behalf of the gang, he robbed, stole and shot at rival gang members. He started carrying a gun at the age of 15.

Maxson was ?jumped in? the Avenues when he was 20 years old and living on Benner Street in Highland Park. He started to hang out with Alex Aguirre in 1989 and began to collect taxes.

?I would either give the talk or back up the person talking,? said the 37-year-old former gang member. ?If the dealer refused, we would take his drugs and assault him. He would eventually end up dead.?

Maxson collected taxes weekly from 15 to 50 drug dealers in the Highland Park and the Avenue 57 area with the help of two assistants. He would also find out from drug users what dealers were selling in the area. If he heard a new name, he would pay a visit, showing up with associates to let the dealer know that if he wanted to deal drugs, he would have to pay taxes.

?We would find out how much they sold,? he said. ?We would monitor the dealers. If a dealer said he wasn?t going to pay taxes, we would shut him down, take his money, drugs and weapons away.?

Maxson said he collected $1,500 to $2,000 a week in taxes for the Mafia. He admitted to more than 30 assaults, dozens of robberies and four shootings, including a shootout at the house of a drug dealer who refused to pay taxes. In 1991, Maxson was sentenced to eight years in state prison for robbery and carjacking convertible Porsches from unsuspecting motorists.

Maxson was back on the streets in April 1996, and collecting taxes two weeks later. In early 1999, Maxson read in a local newspaper that he had been indicted along with 13 others and fled to Mexico with $5,000 in cash, leaving behind his wife and son. Maxson returned to Los Angeles six months later and turned himself in. ?I was tired of my life of crime. ?I wanted to get out of the lifestyle for my kid and me.? Under a plea agreement, Maxson pleaded guilty to racketeering and distribution of narcotics and served four years in federal prison. He was released in August 2002.

He now is an ironworker. At the May trial, he testified about the murders of Downey, Torres and Rodriguez.

Maxson told jurors that he first learned that Rodriguez was murdered one month after he got out of state prison in 1996. It was during a meeting with Gleason and Little Pee Wee at Danny?s Taco Stand on Figueroa Street. Gleason was talking about taking over the drug operation on Avenue 43 when he asked Maxson if he had heard about ?his work? while Maxson was in state prison. ?It was typical among mafia associates to talk about killings.?

Gleason allegedly told Maxson a few days later that Little Pee Wee gave him the gun to kill Rodriguez.

Maxson told the jury that the following year, he heard about the Downey murder while he was living in Glassell Park with his girlfriend, Little Pee Wee and Little Pee Wee?s girlfriend. Maxson told the jury that a fellow gangster, who was in county jail awaiting trial for another murder, had called to complain that he needed money for his defense and wasn?t getting it. Maxson said he assumed the inmate was arrested for the murder of Downey. ?I told Richie that he wanted money,? said Maxson. ?Richie said to tell him to stop crying. I am the one who shot Downey.? Maxson echoed Garcia?s testimony and said that Downey was selling out of a Highland Park bar and was not paying taxes.

That same year, Maxson said he heard about the murder of Torres from Little Pee Wee, who told him that Torres had made a move on Little Pee Wee and that another gang member ?hit him with a big gun.?

?Torres had to go because he was collecting on Drew Street. It was Alex?s area,? said Maxson. ?The order was to take him out.?

Little Pee Wee and Gleason were convicted solely on the testimony of Maxson and Garcia. Defense attorneys attacked the credibility of the ex-gangbangers without success. Gleason?s defense attorney called Maxson a ?liar for hire.?

Prosecutors have relocated Maxson and Garcia for their protection, but they are not finished taking the stand against the Avenues. Maxson is now testifying against two other Avenues members charged in the killing of a 15-year-old gangster. Both will likely be called to the stand later this year against Avenues gang member Javier ?Gangster? Marquez, who faces the death penalty if convicted of killing Downey and Torres.

The wheels of justice turn slowly for Luisa Prudhomme. Since the death of Anthony in 2000, she has visited Highland Park many times and tried to convince police to arrest the accomplice in her son?s killing. Police confirm they have the name of a suspect, but say they do not have enough evidence to arrest him. The case is no longer an active investigation, which upsets the mother. She says the police are too busy with other cases to re-interview witnesses, but she holds out hope that the FBI will take up her cause. The LAPD recently reinstated a $25,000 reward for information about Prudhomme’s and Bowser’s murders.

Until her son’s murder is solved, she can?t move on. She hears his voice every day. She keeps the last message he left on her answering machine on a small recorder in her purse. Once a day it goes off, his voice offering a greeting to her and her family. She is currently involved with Women Against Gun Violence and Parents of Murdered Children and plans to start up a non-profit of her own called the Murder Prevention Coalition.

?We want to make the public aware of how we treat murder as nothing. Murder is not entertainment. After Anthony died, I couldn?t do anything for months,? she said. ?I went to group counseling, one-on-one counseling. Everything. I was devastated. My son had the right to live where he wanted,? she said. ?If I can keep them from killing one other person, it is worth it.?

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