Norteno Gang Member Pleads Guilty To Racketeering Murders

A Norteno gang member pleaded guilty in federal court in San Francisco today to the 2010 racketeering murders on a South San Francisco street of three young men perceived as rival gang members.

Joseph Ortiz, 23, of South San Francisco, pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Susan Illston to a total of 25 charges, including three murders in aid of racketeering.

Other counts to which Ortiz pleaded guilty include eight counts of attempted murder in aid of racketeering, two counts of robbery, racketeering conspiracy, murder conspiracy and firearms violations.

He will be sentenced by Illston on Nov. 1 and faces a mandatory life sentence for each of the three murder charges.

The racketeering murder charges could have carried a possible federal death penalty upon conviction, if the U.S. Department of Justice had given prosecutors approval to seek that penalty.

But Ortiz’s plea agreement states that the department and prosecutors agreed to forego seeking a death penalty in exchange for his guilty plea and acceptance of a life sentence.

Ortiz was one of 19 members of the South San Francisco-based, Norteno-affiliated 500 Block/C Street organization indicted on an array of gang-related charges in 2012.

Including Ortiz, 14 have now pleaded guilty to various charges, according to a status report filed by prosecutors today.

The remaining five defendants include three other men who are also accused of the three racketeering murders on Dec. 22, 2010.

Those three men—Victor Flores, 21, of Petaluma; Justin Whipple, 20, of San Bruno; and Benjamin Campos-Gutierrez, 22, of San Mateo—could also have faced a possible death penalty, but prosecutors have recently filed notices saying they do not plan to seek that penalty in their cases.

Ortiz admitted in his plea agreement that he had been a member of the 500 Block/C Street gang since 2005.
He said that on the evening of Dec. 22, 2010, he and fellow gang members were searching for rival gang members who they believed had threatened their territory.

As he and others drove down Eighth Lane, they spotted a group of seven young men suspected of being rival gang members and fired at them, killing three and wounded three others.

The indictment alleges that Flores and Whipple were shooters along with Ortiz and that Campos-Gutierrez served as their driver.

The victims who were killed were Omar Cortez, 18, Gonzalo Avalos, 19, and Hector Flores, 20, all of South San Francisco,Ortiz also admitted during his plea to shooting at four suspected Sureno gang members and wounding three of them four days earlier, and to carrying out armed robberies of a jewelry store in South San Francisco and a 7-Eleven store in Pacifica in April 2010.

The 500 Block and C Street gangs were originally separate Norteno-affiliated groups, but have functioned as a single association since the mid-2000s, according to the indictment.

Julia Cheever, Bay City News

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