It was, one lawyer said, like something out of "West Side Story" -- a gang war ignited by a girl and fueled by jealousy and pride.
Except that in this war, the bodies were real, all of them casualties in what prosecutors say was one Latino gang's murderous conspiracy against its rivals.
There has been an alarming rise in Latino gang activity in recent years in the District, officials say.
(Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)
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For two years, the violence played out on the streets of the District, primarily in Northwest Washington, and for the past two months, prosecutors have recounted the bloodshed for a jury in D.C. Superior Court.
Based on an extensive investigation that led to charges against a dozen alleged members of Vatos Locos, the case is among the most sweeping prosecutions of a Latino gang in the District in years. Like Maryland and Virginia, the District has registered an alarming rise in Latino gang activity in recent years, authorities say.
The trial of three alleged members of Vatos Locos -- and the testimony of several others who have agreed to cooperate with prosecutors to avoid trial -- has shed the light of a courtroom on the motives and methods of the gang. Yesterday, prosecutors and defense attorneys delivered their closing arguments, and the jury will likely begin deliberations today.
"They made choices to spread violence throughout the D.C. community," Assistant U.S. Attorney Angela S. George, who tried the case with Kevin F. Flynn, said in her closing argument.
The three men on trial -- and a fourth who fled just before the trial began -- are charged with conspiracy, first-degree murder, assault with intent to kill, destruction of property, obstruction of justice and other offenses. Oscar Chavez, 23; Enrique Morales, 22; and Juan Castillo-Campus, 24, have pleaded not guilty to all charges. The fourth man charged is Jose Elias Aguila.
Eight other people charged in the case have pleaded guilty to a range of crimes, and six of them testified against the people they described as fellow gang members. Defense attorneys have argued that the testimony of those cooperating witnesses was self-serving, calculated to help them win more lenient sentences by backing the prosecution's version of events.
Prosecutors said that the testimony was corroborated by other witnesses or physical evidence. From "skip parties," where gang members met to drink, to a brutal home invasion, where they met to kill, the alleged activities of Vatos Locos, which loosely translated means "Crazy Guys," were described in detail during the trial before Judge Patricia A. Broderick.
The trouble apparently began in 1999, prosecutors said, with a dispute over a seemingly shared interest in a young woman. A fight on Sherman Avenue NW followed, and Javier Morales, a cousin of defendant Enrique Morales, was in the middle of it, squaring off against someone from the gang known as Mara R. Javier Morales has pleaded guilty to assault with intent to kill and to other charges.
The Washington contingent of what would become Vatos Locos was mostly made up of Morales family members and friends and did not even have a name until 1999, prosecutors said. Many members had gone to school together at Lincoln Junior High and Bell Multicultural High schools.
Until the episode on Sherman Avenue, the rivalry between the groups, both drawn from the city's Salvadoran community, had not led to much violence. But the relationship was about to take a turn, according to prosecutors.
In 1999, Vatos Locos, led by Enrique Morales and others, began plotting to kill members of Mara R, also known as La R or La Raza, and STC, which stands for Street Criminals or Street Thug Criminals, prosecutors said.
The fighting escalated in August and September 2001 with three shootings, prosecutors said. Then came a series of killings.
On July 2, 2002, Walter Villatoro, a member of Mara R, was fatally shot, allegedly by Chavez and others, at a gas station at 14th and Allison streets NW, prosecutors said.
On Sept. 20, 2002, Antonio Gonzalez, a member of STC, was shot in the 6000 block of 13th Place NW, allegedly by Enrique Morales and others.
On Oct. 29, 2002, Willian Lazo, a member of STC, was slain on the track behind Roosevelt Senior High School, at 13th and Upshur streets NW, allegedly by Enrique Morales, Chavez and Castillo-Campus.
By then, the killings were attracting notice, and D.C. police had begun taking a harder look at possible connections. A Spanish-speaking homicide detective, Eddie Voysest, who had been brought in on one of the cases, took a leading role in the investigation.
Aided by information provided by officers and detectives from the neighborhood and elsewhere, Voysest was able to begin piecing together the rivalry that was fueling the violence. Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles W. Cobb, who helped develop the case, saw the makings of a prosecution on conspiracy and other charges.
By May 2003, a Superior Court grand jury indicted the first six defendants in the case. But the violence and intimidation wasn't over, prosecutors alleged, and the list of charges grew to include another homicide.
That took place on Aug. 2, 2003, in the unit block of Hawaii Avenue NW, prosecutors said. Juan Castillo-Campus and others shot Samuel Avila, a member of STC who had taken up with Castillo-Campus's ex-girlfriend and the mother of his children, prosecutors said.