12 September – LAWFUEL – The Law News Network – The United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California announced that the top five leaders of the Nuestra Familia prison gang were sentenced to life in federal prison on racketeering charges today before the U.S. District Court Judge Charles R. Breyer. Today’s sentencing took place immediately following the commutation of the defendants’ state life prison sentences by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Governor’s commutation order enables these defendants to be removed from the state prison system, where they committed their crimes, and transferred to the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, for ultimate dispersal in maximum security institutions outside of California.
Defendants Cornelio Tristan, 44, James Morado, 57, Joseph Hernandez, 55, Gerald Rubalcaba, 50, and Tex Hernandez, 50, were indicted by a federal grand jury on April 19, 2001 and June 14, 2001, while serving state parole eligible life sentences at Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, California. They were charged, along with 16 other defendants, with multiple criminal offenses, including violations of the Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act and various drug trafficking and firearms violations. With today’s sentencing, all 21 indicted defendants have entered federal guilty pleas and been sentenced.
U.S. Attorney Kevin V. Ryan stated, “Today’s sentencing of the final defendants in this case marks the successful completion of a difficult and complex investigation. By incarcerating these defendants in federal maximum security prisons, this organization’s operational capabilities will be seriously disrupted. I thank the FBI, the Organized Crime Strike Force of the U.S. Department of Justice, the California Department of Corrections, the Santa Rosa, Sonoma, and Monterey County District Attorneys Offices, the Modesto, Salinas, and Stockton Police Departments, and the Monterey County Sheriff’s Department for all of their assistance with prosecuting this case. I also want to thank Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the California Supreme Court, and the California Board of Prison Terms for commuting these defendants’ state sentences so that their federal sentences could be imposed.”
The five defendants sentenced today pleaded guilty on September 27, 2004, to a single count of conspiring to conduct the affairs of a criminal enterprise through a pattern of racketeering activity. They represent the top leaders, or “generals,” of the Nuestra Familia criminal enterprise. As part of their plea agreements, each of the defendants admitted his leadership role in the Nuestra Familia. The defendants further admitted that, under their leadership, the prison gang engaged in multiple acts of drug trafficking, robbery, and violence (including the murder of two former prison gang members) in furtherance of the criminal enterprise.
The defendants also admitted to the following facts in their plea agreements:
The Nuestra Familia is a criminal enterprise which operated principally in Northern California and within California correctional institutions. The organization unlawfully generated income and furnished financial support for its members, particularly incarcerated members. Some members and associates of the prison gang engaged in acts of violence, including murder, robbery, extortion, and distribution of controlled substances on behalf of the organization, and all Nuestra Familia members were required, for life, to contribute twenty-five percent of any earnings, whether from lawful or unlawful means, to repositories known as Nuestra Familia “banks.”
Individuals obtained membership in the Nuestra Familia upon sponsorship by a member and approval by high ranking members. The Nuestra Familia had an ascertainable structure separate and apart from the structure inherent in the conduct of its racketeering activity, including a hierarchical system of authority and a constitution that guided the operation of the organization. The Nuestra Familia consists of hundreds of members and more than one-thousand associates, incarcerated and outside prison. The organization’s ruling body, variously known as the “Organizational Governing Body” (OGB) and “La Mesa,” was comprised of inmates sometimes referred to as “generals” as well as other senior Nuestra Familia leaders in Pelican Bay State Prison, located in Crescent City, California. Outside of penal facilities, the Nuestra Familia was divided into geographic “regiments” managed by “regiment leaders.” These regiments served as the basic unit or crew through which the Nuestra Familia conducted much of its criminal activity. Subordinate to the members of the OGB were other members of the Nuestra Familia known by different titles or ranks such as “Category One,” “Category Two,” and “Category Three,” during one phase of the organization, and captains, lieutenants, and soldiers, during another phase. Each of these ranks entailed different and specific organizational responsibilities. Individual members of the Nuestra Familia were often referred to as a “Familiano” or “Carnal.”
To maintain discipline and allegiance, the Nuestra Familia leadership in Pelican Bay State Prison demanded frequent communication by members through assigned “channels.” Incarcerated Nuestra Familia members and associates communicated with each other and with those outside of penal institutions via inmates passing into or out of correctional facilities and prison visitors. Coded letters, “micro-writings,” known as “kites” or “wilas,” and messages written on the insides of envelopes known as “ghostwriting” were also used for communication among Nuestra Familia members and associates.
Through such communication, the Nuestra Familia leadership learned of the activities of members and associates inside and outside of correctional facilities and issued new rules and directives. Individual members of the Nuestra Familia were often instructed to generate and contribute money to the organization, to establish regiments in different communities, and to commit various crimes, including murder.
The defendants further admitted that members and associates of the Nuestra Familia committed robbery to generate income for the enterprise. That income was used by members for personal expenses and to purchase firearms, ammunition, pagers, automobiles, drugs for distribution and other items for use by the enterprise. All Nuestra Familia members were required to contribute twenty-five percent of the proceeds of such robberies to a Nuestra Familia “bank.” The members and associates of the Nuestra Familia perpetrated these robberies within residential and commercial establishments, including banks, as well as against non-member and non-associate drug dealers. Residential robberies against drug dealers, known as “home invasions,” were committed to obtain money, drugs, firearms and other valuable goods from individuals.
Members and associates of the Nuestra Familia distributed controlled substances to generate income for the enterprise. That income was used by members for personal expenses and to purchase firearms, ammunition, pagers, automobiles and other items for use by the enterprise. All Nuestra Familia members were required to contribute twenty-five percent of the proceeds of such drug dealing to a Nuestra Familia “bank.” The controlled substances distributed by members and associates of the enterprise included methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine, and marijuana.
The defendants further admitted that the members of the OGB, and to a lesser extent other Nuestra Familia Category One leaders, or captains, were responsible for establishing regiments and gang policy, resolving intra-gang disputes among members and associates of the Nuestra Familia, approving new memberships in the organization and authorizing significant actions by members of the Nuestra Familia and Nuestra Raza, including the commission of murder. The members of the OGB and other Nuestra Familia leaders supervised, supported, and protected the other members of the Nuestra Familia and Nuestra Raza; in return, these leaders received a share of the illegal and legal earnings of the Nuestra Familia members.
Maintaining discipline within, and allegiance to, the Nuestra Familia organization was a constant concern and preoccupation of the Nuestra Familia leadership. Some members of the Nuestra Familia, particularly those outside of correctional institutions, sought to distance themselves or even withdraw from the organization. Others failed to earn and contribute money to the organization as generally required, or failed to fulfill specific instructions issued to them by leaders in Pelican Bay State Prison or regiment leaders on the streets. Members often vied with one another for control and influence within the Nuestra Familia. Some abused drugs in contravention of Nuestra Familia rules, while others committed serious crimes such as robbery or murder against fellow Nuestra Familia members without the proper authorization from the Nuestra Familia leadership.
The defendants admitted that they were leaders of the Nuestra Familia criminal enterprise and agreed that members of the organization would commit racketeering acts in furtherance of the conspiracy, including drug dealing, robbery, extortion, murder, and other illicit means by which Nuestra Familia members earned money and supported the organization.
The plea agreements called for stipulated sentences of life imprisonment, following the commutation of the defendants’ undischarged state life sentences. By their terms, the Governor’s orders of commutation became effective this morning upon the defendants’ acceptance, in open court, of the terms of the commutation orders and upon a finding by the U.S. District Court that the conditions of the plea agreements had been satisfied. The Governor’s commutations were made on the condition that the defendants’ state life sentences will be reinstated, should the defendants ever be released from federal custody in their lifetimes. The commutations were made by the Governor following the receipt of favorable recommendations on the commutations from the California Supreme Court and the California Board of Prison Terms, as required under state law.
The prosecution is the result of a lengthy joint federal and state investigation involving the U.S. Attorneys Offices in San Francisco and San Jose, the Organized Crime Strike Force of the U.S. Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the California Department of Corrections, the Santa Rosa, Sonoma, and Monterey County District Attorneys Offices, the Modesto, Salinas, and Stockton Police Departments, and the Monterey County Sheriff”s Department.
Edward Torpoco is the Assistant U.S. Attorney who represented the Government at today’s sentencing hearing. Previously, former Assistant United States Attorney Steven F. Gruel and Department of Justice Trial Attorney Robert S. Tully prosecuted the case, along with Mr. Torpoco. Helen Yee, Diana Wong, and Barbara Phillips assisted in the investigation.