A prosecutor in the conspiracy trial of two alleged MS-13 gang members told a federal jury in San Francisco today the chilling story of a shooting murder near the Daly City BART station two years ago. U.S. Justice Department attorney Theryn Gibbons pointed her hand in the shape of a gun as she recounted the attack on Moises Frias, 21, and his three companions on the evening of Feb. 19, 2009.
“They’re shooting to kill,” Gibbons told the jury in the trial of Luis Herrera and Danilo Velasquez. The shooting happened shortly after 7 p.m. on John Daly Boulevard near Junipero Serra Boulevard, about a block and a half from the BART station. Gibbons alleged that Herrera, Velasquez and another gang member drove to the area in a hunt for members of the rival Norteno gang and mistakenly thought the four victims were Nortenos.
She alleged that Herrera drove the two gunmen to the area and that Velasquez and the other gunman walked to either side of the victims’ car and began shooting. One gunman “shot round after round directly into Moises Frias until he emptied his clip” as Frias begged for mercy, Gibbons said. Frias, a college student who worked as a technician for the California Public Utilities Commission, was killed, and two of the other three young men were wounded.
The victims “didn’t have a chance. They didn’t know they were being hunted by MS-13,” Gibbons said Herrera and Velasquez are both charged with conspiring to racketeer, or engage in organized crime, and conspiring to commit murder in aid of racketeering. Today was the first day of their trial in the court of U.S. District Judge William Alsup in San Francisco. The trial is expected to last about four months.
The racketeering conspiracy count carries a maximum possible sentence of life in prison if the men are convicted. Herrera, who was arrested two weeks after the shooting in a stolen car containing a gun linked to the murder, is also charged with separate counts of murdering Frias, using a gun and attempting to murder the other men in aid of racketeering.
The other man suspected of being a shooter, Jaime Balam, 22, is a fugitive and his whereabouts are unknown, according to Daly City police Lt. Matt Bushong. Bushong said Balam was deported to Mexico a few days after the murder for unrelated reasons, before he had been identified as a suspect. The defense attorneys for Herrera and Velasquez said in their opening statements that their clients were being framed by a gang member who accused them in order to protect himself.
Josh Cohen, a lawyer for Herrera, told the jury, “Someone needs to be held accountable. The crime is horrible.” But he said the evidence will show that Luis Herrera is not one of the killers. Cohen alleged that MS-13 member Wilson Villalta, who was a passenger in the car in which Herrera was arrested on March 4, 2009, blamed Herrera for the murders to protect himself from being prosecuted.
Daniel Horowitz, a lawyer for Velasquez, said prosecutors’ claim of a criminal enterprise was a “fairy tale” and said, “It doesn’t exist in reality” in the cases of Velasquez and Herrera. The two defendants were “low-level guys who put up 20 bucks at a meeting” of the gang, Horowitz said. “They’re around MS-13, sometimes they play soccer, sometimes they hang out, sometimes they smoke some marijuana,” he said.
The MS-13 gang, also known as Mara Salvatrucha, is an international street gang with roots in El Salvador and Southern California. The name is a combination of the words for “gang,” “Salvadoran” and “fear us.” Prosecutors allege that the gang has a culture of violence and that members increase their stature by committing assaults and murders.
The racketeering is also alleged to include drug dealing, theft and extortion. Gibbons called the gang a “violent, murderous enterprise” and alleged that members “knew full well what they were getting into.” Herrera, whose gang nickname was “Killer,” according to prosecutors, and Velasquez, whose nickname was “Triste,” are alleged to have been members of a MS-13 branch based in the area of 20th and Mission streets in San Francisco.
Herrera, who was born in El Salvador, was 18 at the time of the 2009 shootings, Cohen said. Velasquez was born in Guatemala and his exact age is unknown, but he is somewhere between 29 and 32, defense attorney Jennifer Schwartz said. The two men are among 34 alleged gang members charged in several successive versions of a racketeering conspiracy indictment issued by a federal grand jury in San Francisco in 2008 and 2009.
Seven other defendants were tried in a five-month trial in Alsup’s court that began in April and ended in August with convictions of six men on most charges, including racketeering and murder conspiracies. Three of those defendants were found guilty of carrying out three gang-related murders on San Francisco streets in 2008. One defendant was acquitted of all charges.
Most of the other gang members and associates named in the indictment have pleaded guilty to various charges. One was acquitted of stolen car charges in a trial last year, and one other, Manuel Franco, is awaiting trial.
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