Criminal Justice News

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Seven New Jersey MS-13 Members Sentenced to Prison for Racketeering-Related Charges

Seven members of the New Jersey branch of the international street gang La Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, have been sentenced to prison for their roles in a violent criminal enterprise that included murder, extortion and plots to kill witnesses, announced Assistant Attorney General Leslie R. Caldwell of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division and U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman of the District of New Jersey.

Franklin Mejia, aka Frankbo, 25, and his brother, Kelvin Mejia, aka Machete, 24, both of Plainfield, New Jersey, were each sentenced today to 150 months in prison.  Ruben Portillo-Fuentes, aka Sombra, 24, of Plainfield, was sentenced today to 121 months in prison; Julio Adalberto Orellana-Carranza, aka Player, 28, also of Plainfield, was sentenced today to 72 months in prison; and Jose Romero-Aguirre, aka Conejo, 29, of North Plainfield, New Jersey, was sentenced today to 66 months in prison.  Franklin Mejia, Kelvin Mejia, Portillo-Fuentes and Orellana-Carranza each previously pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Stanley R. Chesler of the District of New Jersey to racketeering conspiracy.  Romero-Aguirre previously pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder in aid of racketeering.

Two other co-defendants were previously sentenced.  Roberto Contreras, aka Demonio, 28, of Bound Brook, New Jersey, was sentenced on Dec. 1, 2016, to 180 months in prison.  Jose Garcia, aka Chucky, 24, of Plainfield, was sentenced on Dec. 5, 2016, to 240 months in prison.  Contreras and Garcia were convicted following trial before Judge Chesler.  Contreras was convicted of racketeering conspiracy and accessory after the fact to murder in aid of racketeering.  Garcia was convicted of racketeering conspiracy, murder-for-hire conspiracy, travel in interstate commerce with intent to commit murder and two counts of conspiracy to commit murder in aid of racketeering.

According to the plea agreements and evidence presented at trial, MS-13 is a national and transnational gang with branches or “cliques” operating throughout the United States, including in Plainfield.  All of the defendants were members of the Plainfield Locos Salvatruchas (PLS) Clique of MS-13 that operated in Union, Somerset and Middlesex Counties in New Jersey.  Santos Reyes-Villatoro, aka Mousey, founder of the gang, and Mario Oliva, aka Zorro, both of Bound Brook, New Jersey, and Contreras all served as “First Word,” or leader, of PLS.  From 2007 through 2011, MS-13 members from PLS committed five murders in furtherance of MS-13’s objectives, along with other attempted murders and violent attacks, including the following.

According to evidence presented at trial and to admissions made in connection with plea agreements, on Feb. 27, 2010, Oliva drove a female member of MS-13 to an empty parking lot in Piscataway, New Jersey, and murdered her because she was suspected of working with law enforcement.  Oliva then fled New Jersey with the assistance of Contreras and hid from law enforcement with the MS-13 Pinos Clique in Oxon Hill, Maryland. 

On Jan. 10, 2011, four Maryland MS-13 members drove to Plainfield and were arrested shortly before meeting with Garcia to carry out a murder-for-hire they had arranged with him.  Also on Jan. 10, 2011, Contreras and other MS-13 members were in a car when they spotted a suspected 18th Street gang member in front of a restaurant.  Contreras stopped the vehicle and an MS-13 member exited, approached the suspected rival gang member and shot him in the head. 

On May 7, 2011, Portillo-Fuentes approached an individual sitting outside a residence in Plainfield and fired a handgun at the individual, striking him the chest, in order to intimidate the victim and establish MS-13’s control of the area.  The victim survived.  On May 8, 2011, Garcia and another MS-13 member assaulted a suspected member of the 18th Street gang at a park in Plainfield.  During the assault, Garcia placed a gun to the victim's head and threatened to kill the victim. 

In addition, Orellana-Carranza was assigned a “mission” to kill a rival gang member by PLS’s leadership.  Garcia assisted Orellana-Carranza by arranging for Kelvin Mejia to supply Orellana-Carranza with a handgun.  After retrieving the weapon, on June 11, 2011, Orellana-Carranza went out in search of an 18th Street gang member to kill, but was ultimately unsuccessful. 

Also according to admissions and trial evidence, on June 15, 2011, Portillo-Fuentes spotted a member of the 18th Street gang on a busy street in Plainfield, jumped out of a vehicle and swung a machete at the individual’s head and neck areas.  Later that evening, Kelvin Mejia, Franklin Mejia and a PLS associate robbed two individuals in a park, while all three were armed with guns.  During the robbery, Franklin Mejia fired a shot near one victim’s head, missing the victim’s head but grazing their hand.

The plea agreements and trial evidence established that on June 24, 2011, Garcia, Kelvin Mejia, Franklin Mejia and others plotted to rob an elderly woman who ran an underground liquor store at her residence in Plainfield.  That evening, a PLS member fired a single shot through the woman’s window when she refused to let him enter the residence, and then fled.  In July 2011, Garcia and Kelvin Mejia again plotted to rob the woman to raise bail money for PLS members who had been arrested.

According to admissions and evidence presented at trial, on June 4, 2011, Franklin Mejia and another PLS member attacked a PLS associate with a machete on the train tracks in Plainfield because they believed the victim had been associating with a rival gang.  The victim survived.  On July 2, 2011, Franklin Mejia and Kelvin Mejia sought to obtain a firearm so that Franklin Mejia could kill an older PLS member who was protecting the machete attack victim.  Law enforcement officers thwarted the plot.

Evidence at trial demonstrated that in July 2011, numerous PLS members were in custody at the Union County Jail, during which time Garcia and Esau Ramirez, aka Panda, along with other jailed members, plotted to kill at least three individuals they believed had cooperated with the authorities.  On Aug. 1, 2011, Ramirez instructed Romero-Aguirre, who was free at the time, to “work as fast as possible” in eliminating the suspected cooperators.  Romero-Aguirre subsequently instructed PLS members outside the jail to kill the suspected cooperators.  Law enforcement officers discovered the plan and intervened before anyone was harmed.

According to evidence presented at trial, PLS members were also responsible for at least two attempted murders of suspected Latin King members and machete attacks in May 2011 and June 2011 on the train tracks passing through Plainfield.

To date, 13 of the 14 individuals charged in this case have been convicted.  One defendant remains a fugitive.  One defendant, Cruz Flores, aka Bruja, awaits sentencing.

The FBI’s Newark Division; U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Enforcement and Removal Operations; and ICE Homeland Security Investigations investigated the case.  The Union County Prosecutor’s Office assisted in the investigation.  The Somerset County, New Jersey, Prosecutor’s Office ; the Middlesex County, New Jersey, Prosecutor’s Office; the U.S. Attorney’s Offices for the Eastern District of Virginia and the District of Maryland; the Plainfield Police Department; Union County Police Department; Union County Sheriff’s Office; Elizabeth, New Jersey, Police Department; North Plainfield Police Department; Union County Department of Corrections; Prince George’s County, Maryland, Police Department; and the U.S. Marshals Service also provided assistance.  Former Trial Attorney Kevin L. Rosenberg of the Criminal Division’s Organized Crime and Gang Section and Assistant U.S. Attorneys James M. Donnelly and J. Jamari Buxton of the District of New Jersey are prosecuting the case.

Third and Final Defendant Involved in Theft of Firearms from Pueblo Gun Store Sentenced to Federal Prison

DENVER – Damion Shata Morgan, age 23, of Pueblo, was sentenced this week by U.S. District Court Judge R. Brooke Jackson to serve 28 months for his role as a lookout during the robbery of RJC Firearms in Pueblo, Acting U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer and ATF Denver Division Acting Special Agent in Charge Ron Humphries announced.  Two other defendants were prosecuted, pled guilty and were sentenced for the planning and implementation of the gun store robbery.

The other two defendants involved in the robbery were Benjamin Miguel Acosta, age 25, who was sentenced to serve 60 months in federal prison, followed by 3 years on supervised release for conspiracy to commit theft of a firearm from a Federal Firearms Licensee (FFL) and being a felon in possession of a firearm; and David Anthony Lizarraga, age 37, who was sentenced to 64 months in prison, followed by 3 years of supervised release also for conspiracy to commit theft of a firearm from a FFL as well as possession of two sawed of shotguns.  Morgan pled guilty to the conspiracy to commit theft from a FFL as well.

According to court records, including the stipulated facts from the defendants’ changes of plea documents, on the evening of September 20, 2015, Acosta and Lizarraga, and a person unknown to law enforcement, cased RJC Firearms, which is a business licensed to and engaged in the sale of firearms imported or manufactured in other states, thus in interstate commerce.  After casing the business, the three drove to Lizarraga’s residence, where they obtained bolt cutters, a sledge hammer, and a pry bar.  They then returned to the area of the business, where they met and picked up Morgan.  Morgan was then dropped off near the business to serve as a lookout.  The defendants all knew and agreed to the plan to burglarize the business with the intent to steal the firearms inside.

Acosta, Lizarraga and the third unknown individual, went to the back of the business where they used the bolt cutters to get through the wire outer door, and the sledge hammer to gain access to the interior of the business.  Once inside they smashed the glass on the cases and stole 12 firearms that were in the inventory of RJC Firearms.  As they fled, they picked up Morgan and returned to Lizarraga’s residence, where they divided up the firearms amongst themselves.  Morgan was paid for his part of the conspiracy with heroin.  A search warrant was later obtained for Lizarraga’s residence.  Officers during the search found the bolt cutters, sledge hammer and the pry bar, along with two sawed off shotguns.

“Stealing guns from gun stores is a very serious threat to the safety of Colorado communities,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer.  “Do that, and we will make sure you spend a good piece of your life in federal prison.”

“The surge in gun store burglaries is a concerning trend—one that ATF takes very seriously. These stolen guns end up at future crime scenes, including murders, and pose a risk to innocent civilians and law enforcement alike,” said ATF Acting Special Agent in Charge Ron Humphries. “We are fully committed to investigating gun store burglaries with our local partners to arrest those responsible, recover the firearms and prevent future thefts.”

This case was investigated by the ATF and the Pueblo Police Department.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Federal Jury Convicts California Man of Hate Crime

Defendant Fired Shotgun Round Toward Victim and Shouted, “Move … Out of Oildale”

After a five-day trial, a federal jury found Justin Cole Whittington, 25, of Bakersfield, California, guilty of federal hate crimes for firing a shotgun while yelling racist slurs at a Latino man.

The conviction was announced by Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, and U.S. Attorney Phillip A. Talbert of the Eastern District of California.

Whittington was convicted today of interfering with a person’s housing rights because of his race, color or national origin by use of force or threat of force; use of a firearm during a crime of violence; and making a false statement to a special agent of the FBI.  Whittington had earlier pleaded guilty to unlawful possession of a prohibited firearm in connection to the same crime.

“Whittington used violence to terrorize an innocent man and his family,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Gupta.  “The harm from hate crimes like this one extends beyond individuals and threatens the security, freedom and well-being of entire communities.  No conviction can reverse that harm but this verdict does provide a measure of justice for the victim, his family and his community.”

“The Eastern District of California is a community of different races, ethnicities and backgrounds,” said U.S. Attorney Talbert.  “This defendant tried to strike at the diversity that enriches us by making a cowardly and unprovoked attack on a man who was simply standing in his front yard with his family.  Hate crimes like this have profound effects not only on the victims, but on those in the victims’ communities, making them feel vulnerable and unsafe.  Our office is committed to investigating and prosecuting those who violate the civil rights of others and enforcing laws against hate crimes will remain one of the core missions of this office.”

According to court documents, on Dec. 19, 2012, the victim, a Latino man, was standing in his front yard with his wife and son when a dark-colored PT Cruiser drove past slowly and came to a stop in front of his neighbor’s house.  Whittington, whom the victim had never seen before, got out of the front passenger seat of the car holding a sawed-off shotgun.  Whittington used profanity and shouted a racial epithet as he fired one round toward the victim from about 15 yards away, and yelled that the victim should move out of Oildale, California.  Whittington got back into the vehicle and drove off.  Shortly thereafter, the shotgun was fired from the car at a nearby convenience store owned by a man of Middle Eastern descent.  The blast left a large hole in the store’s glass door and circles of missing paint on the metal gate in front of the store.

According to evidence presented at trial, the victim was able to describe Whittington and the car to Kern County, California, Sheriff’s deputies, and they found Whittington nearby standing outside the PT Cruiser.  The deputies recovered a sawed-off shotgun in the trunk of Whittington’s Crown Victoria, which was parked near the PT Cruiser.

Whittington was also found guilty of making false statements to an FBI agent when he claimed that on the evening of the incident, he had been paid by someone to keep the sawed-off shotgun in the trunk of his car.

According to court documents and evidence presented at trial, the victim and his family no longer felt safe in their home and, as soon as they had the financial means to do so, they moved from the neighborhood.

Whittington is scheduled to be sentenced by U.S. District Judge Dale A. Drozd of the Eastern District of California on Feb. 27, 2017.  Whittington faces a maximum sentence of life in prison and a $250,000 fine.

This case was investigated by the FBI and the Kern County Sheriff’s Office.  The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian K. Delaney of the Eastern District of California and Trial Attorney Samantha Trepel of the Civil Rights Division’s Criminal Section.