Jose Cruz is a walking testament to what happens when a member turns against the Avenues street gang.
He has 30 scars from the stab wounds he suffered in one attempt on his life — on his arms, torso and legs. In another attack, he was beaten so severely that he has a visible dent in his skull, according to court papers, “the size and shape of a pistol butt.”
His street gang goes back five generations in Highland Park, which for Cruz is five miles and several lifetimes from the downtown courtroom where he is scheduled to testify as the star witness for the prosecution in the trial of a group of childhood friends.
Federal prosecutors, who launched their case last week, contend that the Avenues gang between 1994 and 2000 conspired to kill African Americans on their turf.
Men, women and children were harassed, terrorized, assaulted and slain as gang members sought to force black residents out of Latino neighborhoods, prosecutors said.
Authorities are using a federal hate-crime law based on the amendment to the U.S. Constitution that outlawed slavery, and another law created in the civil rights era, to go after four gang members. Barbara Bernstein, deputy chief of the criminal section of the civil rights divisions of the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, is part of the prosecution team.
Attorneys for the defendants — Gilbert Saldana, Alejandro Martinez, Fernando Cazares and Porfirio Avila — have asserted that the federal government has no power to involve itself in a common street crime.
Defense attorney Reuven L. Cohen told jurors last week that one of the slayings cited in the charges — the 1999 shooting of Kenneth Wilson — was not a hate crime but “a simple gang killing committed out of boredom.”
Cohen said the crimes sprang from the “sad” truth of “a tension that exists between African American gangs and Latino gangs.”
Prosecutors say the gang members conspired in various acts of violence, including:
• Wilson’s 1999 killing, which occurred when he returned to his Avenue 52 home late at night after a party, his nephew, Duane Williams, testified Thursday. Wilson was shot repeatedly by Saldana and two others because of his race, Assistant U.S. Atty. Alex Bustamante told jurors.
• Diaz testified that gang members beat a black homeless man with metal weapons, and attacked an African American man speaking on a pay telephone from behind and severely beat him.
Another black man was assaulted on the street because he was walking with a Latina, according to Bustamante.
• Finally, authorities say they have linked the killings of two other men to the Avenues, partly through ballistics. The victims were Christopher Bauser, who was shot execution-style at a bus stop in 2000, and Anthony Prudomme, also killed on a street.
Bustamante offered a chilling view of the mentality of the Avenues as the trial opened in U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson’s courtroom. Martinez was driving a van carrying five fellow Avenues members when he spotted Wilson.
“Anybody want to kill a n[ ]?” Bustamante said.
“Those are not my words, ladies and gentlemen,” Bustamante added, gesturing across the room to Martinez. “They are his.”