New murders and more MS-13 members added to sprawling case against gang's clique

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NORTH HOLLYWOOD, CA - JULY 17, 2019 - - MS-13 graffiti was tagged on a wall in an alley off Vanowen Street in North Hollywood on July 17, 2019. Several gruesome slayings have been attributed to the Fulton clique of MS-13 in North Hollywood in the last two years according to an indictment unsealed Tuesday that charged 22 members of the gang. (Photo By Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
MS-13 graffiti tagged on a wall in an alley off Vanowen Street in North Hollywood. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Federal prosecutors in Los Angeles have expanded a case brought two years ago against the MS-13 gang, charging nine additional members with crimes and accusing the gang of four new murders.

A grand jury indictment returned earlier this month and unsealed Tuesday charges a total of 31 alleged members and associates of MS-13 with a decade-long string of crimes, including 11 killings. The case, which prosecutors first filed in 2019, focuses on the Fulton clique of MS-13 — a subset of the gang that claims parts of North Hollywood, Panorama City and Van Nuys as its territory.

In 2016, the new indictment alleges, the Fulton clique made a gruesome departure from other Los Angeles cliques when it began requiring prospective members to kill a person before they could be considered a full-fledged member. Each of the 11 murders described in the indictment were committed either by aspiring members or by established adherents looking to rise within the clique's ranks, prosecutors claim.

In the new indictment, prosecutors expanded on a claim they made when the case was first filed: that the gang’s Fulton chapter has been influenced by recruits from El Salvador, where MS-13 is generally considered more violent than in Los Angeles

MS-13 was born in the Westlake, Rampart and Pico-Union districts of Los Angeles in the 1980s, formed by groups of Salvadoran youths who banded together for protection against Mexican-American gangs. It now has chapters, or cliques, in about 10 states and El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. The Fultons are one of 15 to 20 cliques operating in Los Angeles, according to law enforcement authorities.

Among the killings added to the case is the death of Santiago Octavio Martinez, 40, who was lured to a 99 Cents store in a South El Monte strip mall one evening in September 2016, according to the indictment.

Two MS-13 members, Walter Chavez Larin and Hector Oliva Melendez, drove a U-Haul truck to the store. Chavez Larin stepped out of the truck wearing a “long, curly wig” and shot Martinez to death, the indictment alleges.

Sheriff’s deputies found Martinez in the driver’s seat of his parked SUV with a gunshot wound to the head.

After the shooting, a conspirator drove Chavez Larin to a ranch in Palmdale owned by Edgar Velasquez, who prosecutors identified as the leader of the Fulton clique. Chavez burned his wig and clothes at the ranch, the indictment says.

Using a law originally devised to combat traditional organized crime groups, prosecutors have alleged the killings and other crimes — shootings, extortions and robberies, but also more mundane acts like tagging and flashing gang signs on social media — were committed as part of a sprawling conspiracy to further the gang's interests. Chavez Larin and Velasquez have pleaded not guilty to conspiring to commit racketeering in connection with the murder. Melendez was arrested this week and has yet to enter a plea.

Chavez Larin is accused in the indictment of playing roles in other killings.

On Dec. 6, 2018, he was with an alleged MS-13 prospect, Edwin Martinez, at a wash near Fulton Avenue and Vanowen Street in North Hollywood when he offered Martinez the chance to become a full-fledged member by killing someone in a rival gang, the indictment charges.

Martinez and an unidentified conspirator drove to the area of Valerio Street and Vista Del Monte Avenue in Van Nuys, a “notorious location where many different gangs congregate,” prosecutors wrote. They approached two young men, asked where they were from and opened fire, according to the indictment.

Osvaldo Hernandez, 22, died at a hospital. After his death, Hernandez’s family described him as the proud owner of a fledgling auto repair business in Canoga Park, “a man that was on his way to be successful,” his father said. At the time of the killing, the Los Angeles Police Department offered a $75,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.

Edwin Martinez has pleaded not guilty to conspiring to commit racketeering and committing a violent crime in aid of racketeering.

The indictment also charges that a group of MS-13 figures committed two killings in a span of a few hours in 2019.

On Jan. 13, 2019, Chavez Larin and four other MS-13 members and associates drove Oscar Fuentes to a remote part of Santa Clarita. Fuentes, known as “Cadejo,” was an MS-13 member who had drifted from the gang and become addicted to methamphetamine, according to the indictment and a search warrant filed in Los Angeles Superior Court.

In Santa Clarita, Chavez Larin handed an unidentified conspirator a .38 revolver and ordered him to shoot Fuentes, according to the indictment. Chavez Larin and another MS-13 member returned to their car as three gang members — Martinez, Carlos Orellana Gonzalez and the unidentified conspirator — took turns shooting Fuentes, passing the revolver between them, the indictment says.

Afterward they drove to a “casita” — an illicit casino and drug den — operated by the Fulton clique in Reseda, where they buried the expended shell casings in the front yard, the indictment says.

Orellana was arrested this week and has yet to enter a plea.

Hours later, Chavez Larin wrote in a Facebook message to another clique member, Luis Arturo Gonzalez, “let’s go take out the trash” in North Hollywood’s Whitsett Park, according to the indictment. The park is known as a gathering place for the Fultons, authorities say.

Looking for someone to kill, Martinez, Gonzalez and an unidentified conspirator drove to the park and shot to death Bradley Hanaway, 34, the indictment charges. Hanaway was homeless and living in the park at the time of his death.

Gonzalez has pleaded not guilty to conspiring to commit racketeering and committing a violent crime in aid of racketeering.

Fuentes’ body, meanwhile, went undiscovered for months until October 2019, when the Tick fire scorched the mountains above Santa Clarita and a work crew stumbled on his skeleton while cleaning debris.

In the indictment, prosecutors set out what they contend is coordination between the Fulton clique in the San Fernando Valley and MS-13 leadership in El Salvador. Chavez Larin, described in the indictment as a leader of the Fultons, was asked by an MS-13 “program manager” in El Salvador for a list of names and monikers of all Fulton clique members, the indictment says.

The MS-13 leader, who wasn’t named in the document, said Salvadoran gang members wouldn’t issue direct orders to the Fulton clique, but "simply needed updates as to the clique’s leadership and activities,” the indictment says.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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