A federal jury is set to begin deliberating in San Francisco Tuesday in a lengthy racketeering trial in which two alleged members of a South San Francisco gang are accused of murdering three rival gang members in 2010.
Victor Flores, 22, of Petaluma, and Benjamin Campos-Gonzalez, 23, of San Mateo, are each charged with three counts of murder in aid of racketeering in the shooting deaths of three young men on a South San Francisco street on the evening of Dec. 22, 2010.
Prosecutors allege Flores and Campos-Gonzalez were members of the Norteno-affiliated 500 Block/C Street gang in South San Francisco and that the victims were members or associates of a rival Norteno gang, the Cypress Park Locos.
Flores and Campos-Gonzales are on trial together with alleged fellow gang members Armando Acosta, 29, of Pacifica, and Mario Bergren, 25, of South San Francisco, on a total of 26 charges.
While only Flores and Campos-Gonzales are accused of carrying out the murders, all four men are accused of conspiring to conduct a racketeering enterprise, conspiring to commit murder in aid of racketeering and conspiring to attack enemies with dangerous weapons.
“These defendants conspired to commit murder and in fact carried it out,” prosecutor Stephen Meyer alleged during his final closing argument today.
The jury in the court of U.S. District Judge Susan Illston was given the case this afternoon after five days of prosecution and defense closing arguments and is due to begin deliberating at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday. The trial began on June 26.
Meyer, an assistant U.S. attorney, told jurors today that 500 Block/C Street members believed the other gang had threatened their territory. One the gang rules was to use violence to “illustrate they are tough and not to be messed with,” he said.
Prosecutors allege that Flores and Campos-Gonzales were among four 500 Block/C street members who rode in a Chevrolet Impala in which they stalked a group of seven young men on Eighth Lane near the intersection of Linden Avenue at dusk the evening of the shootings.
They allege Flores and Joseph Ortiz, 23, of South San Francisco, were the shooters and Campos-Gonzales drove the car. After spotting the victims, Flores and Ortiz got out of the car and started firing, Meyer told the jury today.
“Two victims lay dead in the street, a third was mortally wounded and three others were shot in the leg as they ran for their lives,” he said.
Ortiz pleaded guilty last year to the three murders and other charges and was sentenced by Illston to five consecutive life terms plus 60 years in prison. The plea bargain enabled him to avoid a potential federal death penalty if he had gone to trial and been convicted.
Prosecutors decided not to seek a death penalty for Flores and Campos-Gonzales, but the two men could face life sentences if convicted.
The victims who died in the attack were Omar Cortez, 18, Gonzalo Avalos, 19, and Hector Flores, 20, all of South San Francisco.
Victor Flores and Campos-Gonzales are also charged with four attempted murders of the three men who were wounded and another who was unharmed.
Another passenger, Justin Whipple, 21, of San Bruno, was riding in the car and got out with Flores and Ortiz but did not fire his gun, Meyer said today. Whipple pleaded guilty to four attempted murders and was sentenced to 14 years in prison.
Racketeering is defined as conducting a continuing criminal enterprise. Prosecutors allege the defendants’ racketeering acts, some of which are charged in separate counts, included drug dealing, robbery, and assault in addition to murder and attempted murder.
The 500 Block/C Street gang was originally two groups that merged in the mid-2000s, according to prosecutors.
Defense attorneys argued last week that there was no proof the defendants conspired to racketeer. They also challenged the credibility of prosecution witnesses, some of whom agreed to testify in hopes of getting reduced sentences.
“It’s a bunch of ragtag kids,” Acosta’s defense attorney, Linda Fullerton, told the jury.
She alleged some prosecution witnesses were “people who are desperate for their freedom and got very good deals from the government.”
Stuart Hanlon, representing Campos-Gonzales, said 500 Block/C Street included “individual kids doing individual bad acts,” but maintained, “It had nothing to do with conducting an enterprise.”
Hanlon contended there was no proof Campos-Gonzales was in the car the evening of the shooting.
Flores is also accused of the attempted murders of three members a U.S. Homeland Security Department special response team who broke into his family’s house to arrest him at 4 a.m. on May 3, 2012.
The three agents were wounded, one seriously, by rifle shots.
Defense attorney Richard Mazer argued last week that Flores acted in self-defense and defense of his family because he believed the invaders were the same unknown enemies who had shot and wounded his younger brother in South San Francisco the previous year. The family had moved Petaluma to escape those enemies, he said.
He said there were at least 35 agents at the scene. “It looked like they were ready for war. It’s a military operation,” he said.
Meyer argued Flores must have known the agents were law enforcement officers because they repeatedly shouted “Police, show me your hands” and carried shields labeled “POLICE.”
“Victor Flores knew it was police coming in and he shot them anyhow,” Meyer alleged.
The special response team was sent in because it was “a very dangerous situation” and “it wasn’t safe for regular law enforcement officers,” the prosecutor said.
The four men on trial are the last of 19 defendants named in a grand jury indictment in 2012. The other 15, including Ortiz and Whipple, have pleaded guilty to various charges.
Julia Cheever, Bay City News