A Gang War With a Twist

Kenneth wilson was murdered looking for a parkingspot in Latino gang territory. Driving in the working-class Los Angeles neighborhood of Highland Park in 1999, the African-American man passed a stolen van filled with members of the feared Avenues street gang. Seeing Wilson, one of the Latino gangsters asked: "You wanna kill a n----r?" according to one gang member who has become an informant for federal prosecutors. "F--- it!" the others agreed, as three of them barreled out of the van and gunned down the 38-year-old.

Was Wilson killed because he was black? That's what federal prosecutors in L.A. contend, and they're taking the unusual approach of prosecuting four of the Avenues gang-bangers under a civil-rights-era statute and a hate-crime law based on the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. The men are on trial in a high-security courtroom, charged with a six-year conspiracy to enforce an alleged gang "policy" to intimidate blacks into steering clear of predominantly Latino Highland Park. Kenneth Wilson was killed "because the Avenues had promised each other ... that they would drive African-Americans out of the neighborhood by threats, by force, by murder," prosecutor Alex Bustamante told jurors in his opening statement.

The heart of the case against Gilbert (Lucky) Saldaña, Alex (Bird) Martinez, Fernando (Sneaky) Cazares and Porfirio (Dreamer) Avila--a fifth Avenues gangster is still a fugitive--will come from the testimony of three former gang members turned informants. The informants will attempt to connect the defendants to a series of two dozen assaults, threats and intimidations between 1995 and 2001--including the murders of two local black men, Chris Bowser and Anthony Prudhomme.

Defense attorneys acknowledge that their clients were members of the Avenues, a gang with roots reaching back four generations. But they maintain that the violence was part of gang life, not a vendetta against blacks. "It wasn't racially based," said attorney Mike Shannon, who represents Cazares. Already, the defense team is trying to discredit the informants, pointing out that they have been granted immunity: Jesse Diaz and Jose de la Cruz, who is serving a life sentence for Wilson's murder, are both in state prison and are hoping to receive reduced sentences in exchange for helping prosecutors.

Meanwhile, two of the defendants are already serving life sentences. If prosecutors have their way, all four will be behind bars for life--making the streets of Highland Park safer not only for blacks but for everyone.