Killers targeting blacks get life terms

By Peter Y. Hong
Times Staff Writer

November 21, 2006

Three Highland Park gang members convicted of deadly hate-crime attacks against African Americans were sentenced to life in prison without parole Monday.

The members of the Latino gang the Avenues had been prosecuted for breaking federal hate-crime laws — statutes typically used against white supremacist groups.

They were convicted of carrying out a conspiracy that violated their victims’ rights to live and walk in Highland Park. The conspiracy included several killings.

Defense attorneys had argued during the trial that hate-crime charges were a ploy by frustrated prosecutors who lacked evidence to try their cases in state court.

Gilbert “Lucky” Saldana, 27, Alejandro “Bird” Martinez, 28, and Fernando “Sneaky” Cazares, 25, were each sentenced to life imprisonment by U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson for their parts in the murders of two African American men.

A fourth gang member, Porfirio “Dreamer” Avila, 31, is scheduled to be sentenced Dec. 18. Avila is currently serving a life sentence for the murder of two African American men.

“Hate crimes are some of the most disturbing offenses prosecuted by this office,” said acting U.S. Atty. George S. Cardona. “These defendants will now spend the rest of their lives in federal prison for the despicable act of trying to rid their neighborhood of African Americans.”

As members of the Avenues gang, the men targeted African Americans without gang ties, including women and children. From 1995 to 2001, according to trial testimony, the gang members shot a 15-year-old boy riding a bicycle, hit a jogger in the head with a pistol, knocked a woman off her bike and threatened her husband with a box cutter.

The gang shot one victim as he drove his car, and another was shot to death as he waited for a bus on Figueroa Street.

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