Former fugitive gang member gets 20 years for racially motivated murder

An Avenues gang member who was captured last year after more than a decade on the run was sentenced to 20 years in prison on federal hate crime and firearms charges that were filed against him in 2004.

An Avenues gang member who was captured last year after more than a decade on the run was sentenced to 20 years in prison on federal hate crime and firearms charges that were filed against him in 2004.

Merced Cambero Jr., 39, who used the gang moniker “Shadow,” pleaded guilty in February 2018 to participate, along with other gang members, in a conspiracy to use violence against African Americans to interfere with their right to live in Highland Park, California. Cambero also admitted that he participated in 1999 racially motivated murder of Kenneth Wilson, an African-American man who was shot and killed in furtherance of that conspiracy. According to U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Gang member Cambero was sentenced by United States District Judge Percy Anderson, who in 2006 presided over the trial of four co-defendants who were convicted by a federal jury. Cambero and three of the four co-defendants – Gilbert “Lucky” Saldana, Alejandro “Bird” Martinez and Fernando “Sneaky” Cazares, shot and killed Mr. Wilson because of his race and because he was using the public streets in Los Angeles. These defendants were also found guilty, along with a fourth co-defendant, Porfirio “Dreamer” Avila of conspiring to use violence to interfere with the federal housing rights of African Americans in Highland Park, Calif. including another African-American man, Christopher Bowser, who was shot and killed in 2000. Saldana, Martinez, Cazares, and Avila each were sentenced to life in federal prison. Although Cambero was charged in the same indictment, he was not arraigned in the case until after he was captured in Mexico in 2017.

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At the 2006 trial of the four co-defendants, the jury heard testimony from two Avenues gang members who participated in the murder of Kenneth Wilson and implicated Cambero and three co-defendants. The gang members also testified about an agreement among Avenues gang members to try to preserve the primarily Latino makeup of Highland Park by engaging in violence against African Americans. Their testimony was corroborated by numerous African-American residents of the Highland Park neighborhood who described acts of racially motivated violence directed at them by the defendants and their fellow gang members.

In court filings connected with Cambero’s guilty plea and sentencing, Cambero admitted that he and his fellow gang members were in a stolen van when they saw Wilson, whom they did not know, and decided to kill him because of his race. Cambero admitted that he and two other gang members then got out of the van and fired guns at Wilson, who was killed by a single gunshot through the neck.

“This defendant, gang member was part of a reprehensible scheme that targeted an entire class of people simply because of skin color,” said United States Attorney Nick Hanna. “The Justice Department is committed to preserving and protecting everyone’s civil rights – particularly when violent acts are used to violate those rights. Mr. Cambero attempted to avoid prosecution for many years, but we persisted in bringing him to justice and sending a message to the entire community that this type of conduct will not be tolerated and will be punished.”

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“This Justice Department will not tolerate any act of violence motivated because of another’s race,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore. “The defendant’s egregious actions were unlawful, and as this sentencing demonstrates, will not go without punishment. The Civil Rights Division will continue to prosecute those who commit violent acts of hate vigorously.”

After hearing from the mothers of two African-American men killed by the gang during Monday’s sentencing hearing, Judge Anderson accepted the guilty plea and sentenced Cambero to 20 years in federal prison. Among the considerations, Judge Anderson cited as influencing his sentence where the defendant’s acceptance of responsibility and the desire of the victims and witnesses to be spared the trauma of another trial.