Calling him a “vicious, heartless murderer,” a federal judge in San Francisco today imposed a sentence of life plus ten years in prison on an MS-13 gang member accused of participating in the gunfire slaying of a college student in Daly City in 2009.
Danilo Velasquez, said by his defense lawyer to be between somewhere between 28 and 32 years old, was convicted by a jury in the court of U.S. District Judge William Alsup in November of four charges, including racketeering conspiracy and murder conspiracy.
“If you’re going to be in a conspiracy to murder, you ought to know the prison doors will close behind you and you will never see the blue sky again,” Alsup said as he pronounced the sentence.
Federal prosecutors claimed at the trial that Velasquez was one of three MS-13 members who killed Moises Frias Jr., 21, and severely wounded two of his three companions in their car near the Daly City BART station on Feb. 19, 2009.
The MS-13 members were allegedly hunting for members of the rival Nortenos gang and mistook the young men, who had no gang affiliations, for Nortenos because three of them were wearing red clothing or caps. Red is the Norteno color.
Velasquez was not specifically convicted of Frias’s murder, but rather of generally conspiring to racketeer, or engage in a criminal enterprise, and plotting to commit murders in aid of racketeering.
But Alsup made a specific finding during today’s sentencing that Velasquez did take part in the 2009 slaying.
“The defendant directly participated in the murder of Moises Frias on Feb. 19, 2009,” Alsup said.
“There is no doubt about that on this record,” the judge said.
The finding provided the basis for Alsup to order Velasquez to pay $21,650 in restitution, at the rate of $100 per year from his future prison work wages, to Frias’s family for funeral expenses.
Frias was studying business at San Francisco City College while working part-time for the city’s Public Utilities Commission and his three friends were college or law students.
The men were on their way to have a drink at a Daly City restaurant when a car drove up behind them at about 7:10 p.m. and two men jumped out, flanked the victims’ vehicle and began firing with semi-automatic weapons.
Prosecutors say that Velasquez, using a 9 millimeter Luger that jammed several times, shot into the right side of the car and wounded two of Frias’s friends and sent a bullet through the cap of a third.
MS-13 member Jaime Balam, who is a fugitive, shot into the left side of the car and killed Frias in the back passenger seat with nine gunshots to the head, prosecutors allege.
The third attacker, MS-13 member Luis Herrera, 20, pleaded guilty in November to seven charges, including racketeering and murder conspiracy, and admitted to driving Velasquez and Balam to and from the shooting scene.
Alsup sentenced Herrera last month to 35 years in prison, the term agreed to in Herrera’s plea bargain.
Frias’s mother, father and sister gave emotional and angry victim-impact testimony during today’s sentencing of Velasquez, whose gang name was “Triste,” the Spanish word for sad.
“I still remember the day we were told that Moises had died,” said Adriana Frias, his mother.
“It is three years now that I have been feeling the pain in my chest. He did not deserve to die like this,” she said.
Citing the testimony of her son’s companions, she said, “He was still begging at them to stop shooting at him.”
Looking at Velasquez, she said, “You are called Triste. I hope that in jail you die of sadness. I will never forgive you guys for what you did to my son.”
The father, Moises Frias Sr., told Alsup, “This type of people should never ever be allowed to get out of jail. Let them rot there.
“I am suffering day to day since three years ago. Every morning I wake up and I think of my son,” the father said.
Defense attorney Jennifer Schwartz unsuccessfully sought a 35-year sentence. She argued that Velasquez was impaired by having suffered physical and sexual abuse and witnessed civil war violence during his childhood in a remote Mayan village in Guatemala.
Velasquez made his way to the United States with a cousin sometime between the ages of 11 and 14, she said.
Schwartz argued that Velasquez was considered “slow” and “shy” by people who knew him in San Francisco and was not a leader of the gang.
But prosecutors contend that Velasquez stepped in to become a leader of an MS-13 branch centered at 20th and Mission streets in San Francisco after 26 other Bay Area gang members were arrested in an initial wave of federal racketeering and other charges in October 2008.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Scoble said at the sentencing, “The picture is not of someone who is vulnerable, is easily manipulated and has lost his way. The picture is one of a gang member who jumped in with both feet, stayed in the gang and rose through the ranks.”
Scoble said expert testimony at the trial showed that Velasquez was malingering, or deliberately trying to appear impaired, on psychological tests.
Alsup agreed, saying, “He was malingering and I don’t fall for it.”
“He knew perfectly well he was in a conspiracy to kill and murder innocent people. This defendant is a vicious, heartless murderer,” the judge said.
Asked at the sentencing whether he wanted to make a statement, Velasquez said only that he wanted to appeal.
In addition to the racketeering and murder conspiracy charges, Velasquez was convicted of conspiring to commit assault with a dangerous weapon and using a gun in a violent crime.
In all, 34 members and associates of the MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, gang, including Velasquez and Herrera, were charged in four successive versions of a federal grand jury indictment in San Francisco in 2008 and 2009.
The indictments alleged that gang members carried out six murders of rival gang members or people mistaken for rivals on San Francisco and Daly City streets in 2008 and 2009, including the murder of Frias.
Thirty-one defendants have pleaded guilty or been convicted of various charges, including six others whom Alsup sentenced to life in prison for racketeering and murder conspiracy.
Two were acquitted in previous trials. The remaining defendant, Manuel Franco, 26, is now on trial in Alsup’s court on conspiracy charges. The jury in that case has been deliberating since Feb. 7.
The international MS-13 gang originated in El Salvador and Southern California. Prosecutors contend members engage in murder, assault, drug dealing, theft and extortion, and gain status by attacking and killing rival gang members.
Julia Cheever, Bay City News