Luis Rodriguez of 1376 South State Street in Ukiah had moved in and fixed the place all up for a small business venture. Having designed a sign inspired by a magazine cover, Rodriguez, modifying it to his purposes, reproduced it on the wall, on the door, and on the gate. There it was, everywhere emblazoned in blue paint, the number 13 in gang signs. Then he procured some inventory with his start-up capital — several ounces of methamphetamine, a scale, ziploc bags in various sizes, and some inert, crystalline powder with which to cut his product, which our start-up capitalist then sold as grams, eight-balls, or ounces.
Some of our intrepid entrepreneur's first customers included the Major Crimes Task Force, led by Probation Supervisor and Mendocino County gang expert, Jason Costa. When impatient the task force arrived, Rodriguez made a belated effort to fortify his front door with a couch as he made a dash for the back door, only to be “detained” in the kitchen by Mendo Sheriff's deputy, Sergeant Bruce Smith. While Special Agent Peter Hoyle inventoried the drugs and weapons, Costa chatted with the “subject” who told Costa he was a “Southerner.”
No, Costa explained in court, Rodriguez wasn’t referring to the Old South below the Mason-Dixon line, but to a new designation for a prison and street gang, formerly called the Sureños. Costa said a directive had come down from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Mexican Mafia guys who run the gang from prison, for gang members to stop calling themselves Sureños and call themselves Southerners as a way to throw the cops off their trail. This crafty linguistic maneuver doesn't seem to have fooled law enforcement into confusing Ukiah gang bangers with the cast of Gone With The Wind.
Officer Costa further explained that the Sureños were divided into subsets, such as the Puro Sureño Cholos in Lennox (LA), the Crazy Vato Controllas in Fort Bragg, and the Varrio Xeco Locos in Ukiah. Xeco is Aztec for criminal. The graffiti tagging and tattoos for the gang is VXL, which translates to “goofy ghetto thugs,” since a varrio refers to a ghetto or slum, and anything south of Talmage on State Street is rapidly turning into the largest slum in Mendoland, notwithstanding the entire city of Willits. Loco needs no translation, since it has become Americanized.
Foot soldiers for the gangs, the grunts on the streets of our deteriorating cities all the way down to rural towns like Ukiah, are obliged to sell drugs in order to send money to the gang’s generals who are in prison. The money is put on the prisoners’ commissary accounts, and helps take care of their families. The foot soldiers have also been ordered, according to Costa, to knock off the drive-by shooting tactics. Now, if they want to murder someone, they have to get out of the car to do it. We can only speculate as to the amount of annoyance this inconvenience causes the street thugs, the damage it does to their morale.
Rodriguez was in court on “a predicate offense,” meaning the drug sales were gang-related and the prison term would come with enhancements, if proven. The gang markings on his walls, his door, his gate, and a magazine at Rodriguez’s residence were being offered as proof that he was a gang-banger. The prosecution also had the defendant’s cellphone with plenty of text messages on it related to meth sales.
“How much of the profits from drug sales are gang members required to contribute to the gang?”
“Anywhere from 10 to 40%.”
“And where does this money go?”
“To anyone currently incarcerated — and to their families.”
“Do you know where they get all this meth?”
“I wish I did.”
Rodriguez was represented by Public Defender Linda Thompson. Apparently, all the defendant's money was tied up in the new business venture, or had gone to gang members in prison. At any rate, Rodriguez seemed very happy with Thompson's representation, especially when the diminutive Thompson, who can be quite theatric, made an 1118 Motion, which is a motion to dismiss the gang-related allegations as having been insufficiently established. Maybe the dramatics are what impress the people at the jail, because a lot of them are convinced they've got the best lawyer, ever, dude! The motion, impressively delivered as it was, was utterly ineffective.
Thompson: “Have you ever been to, uh — well, let me ask you this: had you met my client before his arrest?”
Probation officer Costa: “No, ma’am.”
Thompson: “Ha!" (The Public Defender, pleased with her invisible Gotcha emitted a faint tee hee hee). "So, you did not even, uh — well, just let me ask you this, Mr. Costa, then: Do you know a gang member who goes by the moniker of Cricket?”
Costa: “Yes, ma’am, I do.”
Thompson: “And does he have any contact — that you personally have knowledge of — with my client?”
Costa: “No, not that I know of?”
Thompson: “Aha! Well then, what about a gang member that goes by the name of Fern — short for Fernando?”
Thompson exulted again. She named several others mopes, including one who went by “Stranger.” Each time Costa said no, those guys hadn’t, to his knowledge, been affiliated with the defendant, and that anyway there were at least five guys known as “Stranger.”
Thompson: “When my client was in the squad car and you were talking to him and he said he was a Southerner, did you ask him what he meant by that?”
Costa: “No, ma’am, I did not.”
Thompson: “Ah, I see… um-humm… So, then — well, let me just ask you this: Did you know he was born in southern California?”
Thompson: “(Tee hee hee) Well, then…”
After a while it became apparent that this exercise was aimed more at making an impression on her client than it was at convincing the court. Rodriguez was grinning and smirking at the cops like, "My lawyer's got you gavachos by your cojones!" and the prosecutor, Deputy DA Daniel Madow, was on the ropes.
It seemed to come as something of a shock to Rodriguez when Judge Ann Moorman summarily denied the motion.
Thompson objected that it wasn’t a crime to be a Southerner, and that Costa had never seen her client in the company of other known gang members.
Judge Moorman asked Costa if the area of South State where Rodriguez lived was infested with gang activity; he answered that it was saturated with it.
Thompson found a place in the transcript of the prelim where Costa had said it wasn’t that bad a problem in that area and confronted Costa with the inconsistency in testimony, to which Costa finally admitted. (He’d been trying to avoid giving credence to defense’s contention that other gang-bangers could have put the tagging on Rodriguez’s gate).
Moorman said, “Ms. Thompson makes a motion that the evidence is insufficient to show the defendant is a gang member due to Mr. Costa’s ‘weak’ testimony about associating with known gang members and his use of the term ‘Southerner' may have had other meanings.”
Madow: “It was taken out of context by defense, your honor. They were talking specifically about gang membership when Mr. Rodriguez said he was a Southerner.”
Moorman: “The graffiti on the fence could have been placed there by someone else, since it was accessible to other persons. But the same symbols on the wall and inside the door, not to mention the magazine, was surely done by Mr. Rodriquez himself, or with his approval, since it was inside his house. As for the statement made by the defendant in the back of the car, it’s Mr. Costa’s opinion that he was referring to his [Rodriguez’s] gang affiliations, and he [Costa] has a basis — his expertise — for that opinion, so I’m gonna deny the 1118.1 Motion and reserve my ruling on the predicate offense. Ms. Thompson, call your first witness for defense.”
Ms. Thompson’s witness wasn’t available. He couldn’t make it in until Monday, so the matter of the People vs. the South State Street vato was set to resume the following week. It didn’t look too promising for Rodriguez, except that he may soon be the recipient of some of those gang drug sales that go to the prisons for the support of incarcerated gang members.
But something good came out of it: We got a good idea of why so many people in jail and prison seem to think the Public Defender is a great lawyer. She puts on a good show for the saps she helps process into long stays in the time out rooms, the ones with the guard towers.