Norteno Gang Member Avoids Death Penalty, Gets Five Life Terms

A Norteno gang member has been sentenced in federal court in San Francisco to five life terms for an array of convictions, including the racketeering murders of three young men perceived as rival gang members in South San Francisco in 2010.

Joseph Ortiz, 23, of South San Francisco, was sentenced Thursday by U.S. District Judge Susan Illston.

He pleaded guilty before Illston in July to 25 counts, including the three murders, murder conspiracy, racketeering conspiracy, attempted murder, robbery and firearms violations.

The guilty plea, and his agreement to accept life sentences, enabled him to avoid a possible federal death penalty if he had gone to trial and been convicted of the three murders in aid of racketeering.

Prosecutors said Ortiz was a member of the Norteno-affiliated 500 Block/C Street gang in South San Francisco.

The group was originally two separate Norteno gangs, but began functioning as a single association in the mid-2000s, according to an indictment issued by a federal grand jury last year.

Ortiz admitted in his guilty plea 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 wounding three others.

The victims who died were Omar Cortez, 18, Gonzalo Avalos, 19, and Hector Flores, 20, all of South San Francisco.

South San Francisco Police Chief Michael Massoni said, “We hope that the families who have been affected by this event can find closure knowing that one of the persons responsible for the murder of their loved ones will be spending the rest of his life in custody.”

Ortiz is one of 19 members and associates of the 500 Block/C Street gang named in the 2012 indictment. Fourteen have now pleaded guilty to various charges and the remaining five are scheduled to go on trial before a jury in Illston’s court on March 31.

Those awaiting trial include three other men who are also accused of the three murders: Victor Flores, 21, of Petaluma; Justin Whipple, 20, of San Bruno; and Benjamin Campos-Gutierrez, 22, of San Mateo.

Ortiz’s father, Michael Ortiz Sr., 50, of San Bruno, pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact of the murders and helping his son flee temporarily to Mexico. The father was sentenced to five years and 10 months in prison.

Julia Cheever, Bay City News

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