In a major strike against the Latino gangs that have taken root across the region, three men were convicted yesterday in D.C. Superior Court of carrying out a murderous conspiracy that left four members of rival gangs dead.
Eight other members of the gang pleaded guilty before the trial to various crimes connected to the string of attacks in Northwest Washington, which began in August 2001 and ended two years later. One of the slayings took place in broad daylight outside a Northwest Washington high school.
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Many of those who pleaded guilty testified against the three defendants during a two-month trial, laying out the workings of a gang driven to violence not by the drug trade or some other criminal operation but by jealousy over a woman.
Known as Vatos Locos, or "Crazy Guys," the gang decided to go after its rivals in 1999 amid rising tensions with other gangs and the fallout from a fight over a shared romantic interest. The targets of the conspiracy were Mara R, also known as La Raza or La R, and STC, short for Street Thug Criminals or Street Criminals, according to a 65-count indictment.
Like Mara R, STC and other Latino gangs in the District and the surrounding suburbs, Vatos Locos was made up principally of young men with roots in El Salvador, a country that is now battling a pernicious gang problem.
After their co-defendants pleaded guilty, four alleged Vatos Locos members were left to face charges of conspiracy, murder, assault with intent to kill, obstructing justice, kidnapping and other crimes. One of them, Jose Elias Aguila, fled before trial, authorities said. That left the other three men -- Oscar Chavez, 23, Enrique Morales, 22, and Juan Castillo-Campus, 24 -- to stand trial before a jury in Judge Patricia A. Broderick's courtroom.
The case was massive, and the trial was long. Jurors began deliberating Dec. 7. Several days into deliberations, a juror was hospitalized, delaying matters for a few days. The Christmas holiday added another interruption.
When the panel returned yesterday morning, the foreman sent a note almost immediately indicating that the jurors had reached verdicts. It took 21 minutes to announce them. The courtroom was packed, mostly with female relatives of the defendants. Many began crying softly as the gravity of the outcome sunk in.
All three were convicted of conspiracy. Although the charge can be difficult to prove, prosecutors find it an effective way to present a case to jurors who must connect a succession of violent crimes.
"It was very important," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin F. Flynn, who tried the case along with fellow prosecutor Angela S. George. "It put all of the crimes into their proper perspective. This was a group enterprise."
Earlier this month, in what the U.S. attorney in Northern Virginia said was an effort to bring more sophisticated prosecution tools to bear on street gangs, a federal grand jury indicted two members of the gang Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, on racketeering charges.
In the Vatos Locos case, Flynn said, the workings of the conspiracy became clear only after investigators and prosecutors began taking a closer look at crimes that, until then, had not been seen as linked.
All three defendants called character witnesses. Chavez and Castillo-Campus both testified, saying they were not part of Vatos Locos and denying any role in the killings.
Chavez was convicted of first-degree murder in the July 2002 killing of Walter Villatoro, a member of Mara R, and the September 2002 killing of Antonio Gonzalez, a member of STC. He also was convicted of second-degree murder in the October 2002 shooting of Willian Lazo, a member of STC who was slain on the track behind Roosevelt High School, at 13th and Upshur streets NW. Jurors also convicted Chavez of assault and weapons charges.
His attorney, Thomas F. Dunn, said Chavez has grounds to appeal.
Morales was found guilty of first-degree murder in the killing of Gonzalez and of second-degree murder in the killing of Lazo. He also was found guilty of multiple assault and weapons charges.
His attorney, Vandy L. Jamison Jr., said the conspiracy charge was the decisive blow to the defense case. "Once you're found guilty of the conspiracy, that puts you in the mix, and so anything is fair game. . . . That's the difficulty of the conspiracy charge," he said.
Jamison said Morales also has grounds for appeal.
Prosecutors failed to win convictions against Chavez and Morales in the August 2003 killing of Samuel Avila. Although Chavez and Morales were both in jail at the time, prosecutors used a legal theory that makes co-conspirators responsible for the crimes of the conspiracy even if they are not present.
Castillo-Campus was found guilty of first-degree murder in the killing of Avila and of second-degree murder in the slaying of Lazo. He was acquitted of some assault charges but found guilty of others. His attorney, Paul A. Signet, declined to comment.
The defendants who pleaded guilty to various charges before the trial were Pablo Andrade, William Anaya, Jorge Barbery, Wilfredo Garcia, Javier Morales, Juan Carlos Morales, Gilberto Vigil and Oscar Urquilla.