With testimony nearing a close in the trial of a teenager accused of killing a rival gang member, Hennepin County District Judge Kevin Burke had some advice for defendant Jose Miguel Chavarria-Cruz.
Saying it kept him up one night, Burke suggested that the young man reconsider the deal of 39 years in prison he was offered before his trial began on charges of first-degree murder and first-degree murder for the benefit of a gang. Chavarria-Cruz was risking a sentence of life in prison if convicted of first-degree murder, Burke said.
With the jury out of the room, Burke told Chavarria-Cruz that he is taking a big gamble. The defendant and his lawyers then met privately, but when they came out, the trial moved ahead. Defense lawyers acknowledge that Chavarria-Cruz was the shooter, but they say it wasn't premeditated first-degree murder.
The case may go to the jury today.
The trial has provided a primer on the lifestyles of young south Minneapolis gangsters. Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Hilary Caligiuri's key witness in the case was Felipe Saldivar-Alvillar, who admitted to driving his fellow gang members to Bloomington where Carlos Hernandez Perez was shot on May 1, 2006. Saldivar-Alvillar, a member of the Sureños 13 gang, said he was driving his truck around that night with four friends and two guns. Saldivar-Alvillar only occasionally glanced at Chavarria-Cruz as he testified against him, but he was reluctant at times to provide details.
As he and the others drove around that night, Saldivar-Alvillar said he had a loaded .22-caliber gun in an air vent.
He said the group drove to Bloomington to see Perez under the pretext of exchanging the .22 for marijuana. He denied any plan for a revenge killing despite his admission that Vatos Locos members had made threatening phone calls to him that evening. Prosecutors allege Chavarria-Cruz called Perez and lured him outside by pretending to be a Vatos Locos member.
Signs of a Sureño 13
Saldivar-Alvillar, whose nickname is "Cricket" or "Grillo" in Spanish, is a member of the "Crooks" clique of the Sureños 13 gang that controls turf in south Minneapolis, including Lake Street. Chavarria-Cruz's nickname is Wizard.
Saldivar-Alvillar testified that their colors are blue and gray, and he reluctantly flashed the hand signs the gang members use to both promote themselves and deride rivals. For the Sureños, that means versions of the number "13" and a "V" and an "L" upside down to signify a negative connotation for the Vatos Locos. Tattoos with just three dots, often on the wristbone, signify membership. The defendant has three dots on one wrist and one on the other, signifying 13.
Caligiuri displayed a photo of Saldivar-Alvillar in which he had used a hair clipper to slash a line in one of his eyebrows and three lines in the other, again making 13.
Caligiuri asked him what the gang does, what sorts of crimes. "We're not in a gang just to commit crimes, it's about brotherhood, protecting one another," Saldivar-Alvillar said.
When she pressed, he acknowledged robberies are common.
She asked him how many times he had been shot. Saldivar-Alvillar said he was shot in the head and back in the front yard of his mother's home. In separate incidents, he said he had been shot in the back and leg.
He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit first-degree premeditated murder for the benefit of a gang and agreed to testify in exchange for potential sentencing leniency.
The prosecution has one more witness to call today. It was unclear whether the defense would call witnesses today or proceed to closing arguments.
Initially, five defendants were scheduled for trial together.
Noel Escarcega pleaded guilty to second-degree intentional murder for the benefit of a gang. Tarun Solorzano-O'Brien pleaded guilty to aiding an offender after the fact for the benefit of a gang. Jose Manuel Saldivar-Alvillar's case is unresolved because his lawyer died before trial. Felipe is his older brother.
Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747