Marked Man

Felix Medina and his gang compatriots ruthlessly ruled a south central neighborhood. Now the party's over.

Felix Medina sat in the corner of a filthy room, inhaled another hit of crack cocaine and kicked back, savoring his success.

There were feces smeared on the walls and used condoms scattered across the floor of the dilapidated shack, but the then-23-year-old Medina basked in decadent adulation during the fall of 1998.

His harem of young women brought him food and drink -- catering to his whims as he lolled in a crack stupor. The party rocked from dusk 'til dawn, day after day, week after week -- crackheads in one room, heroin junkies in another and prostitutes throughout.

Outside, Medina's homeboys stole money and dope from hapless addicts who came to make a buy. The crackheads got robbed and beaten instead.

Medina's homies would gladly knock off a piece of rock and kick back a few bucks to their leader, Medina, whom they call "Gato," as in Felix the Cat. Some say the tributes were out of respect. Others say it bought them some protection from Medina's infamous rage.

Sex, money, drugs, weapons, power -- Medina had it all as el grande of one of Phoenix's oldest and most powerful criminal street gangs, Eastside Los Cuatro Milpas (The Four Fields), which ruled the neighborhood southeast of Bank One Ballpark and north of Interstate 17.

Medina attained kingpin status the old-fashioned way. He wrested it with an iron fist, pummeling rivals into submission while mixing it up with a few cops on the way to the top.

He first did prison time in 1992, when he was still a skinny, 18-year-old kid. Prison was like going to a college for crime.

Medina emerged from the joint in 1996, a feared fighting machine. At 6-foot-2, 240 pounds, he was a head taller than most of the other Hispanic members of LCM.

"He's crazy," says a gang associate. "Nobody will fuck with him."

When trouble broke out in the 'hood, Medina took charge.

"If one of my homies has a problem, like somebody will come tripping on him with a gun, that's where I come in," Medina told police in a videotaped interrogation.

"I walk up to the gun. I don't care. You guys are different because you guys will shoot me," he said. "But a person, like a gangster or a wanna-be gangster, you can see it in their eyes."

You can see it in Medina's dark brown eyes as well. They flash his innate intelligence (IQ: 118) and suggest that if he were born into another neighborhood or a different family, he might have been a scholar.

But karma landed him in the Milpas, a destitute community that is literally being rattled to the ground by aircraft from Sky Harbor International Airport. Medina and his homeboys controlled one of Phoenix's oldest neighborhoods through intimidation and force. They ripped off and shot at their own neighbors and painted LCM graffiti on beautiful neighborhood murals.

Medina is a poster boy for La Vida Loca, a path he seemed destined to lead. His grandfather and father were both LCM members and reportedly served prison time. His father was killed when Medina was 3, shot in the head during a family brawl.

Medina's drug-addled, reckless leadership turned the Milpas upside down. Police allege he committed armed robberies and was involved in numerous assaults and at least one kidnaping while running a protection racket for drug-peddling Mexican nationals.

The action centered on the Eastside LCM party house at 1422 South 13th Place, where scores of drug addicts and gangsters hung out. Medina's strong-arm tactics became so volatile and outrageous, it split the once united gang into factions.

"When Gato came out of prison, he just ruined our whole neighborhood," says one Eastside LCM member.

The Phoenix Police Gang Squad turned its focus on Medina and his homies -- and found they had plenty to work with. Utilizing a tough anti-gang racketeering statute (see accompanying stories), detectives stepped up patrols of the Milpas, scoured police reports, computer databases and photos of gangbangers flashing gang signs. They also contacted victims of old crimes, steadily amassing a case against Medina and his core of LCM veteranos.

In March, LCM's perpetual party came to a screeching halt. The gang squad dropped its net over the Milpas and arrested Medina and three other veteranos. A fourth LCM veterano wanted by police turned up dead in an alley, a bullet through his head.

Medina's three co-defendants have all pleaded guilty to various assault and drug charges and participating in a criminal street gang -- two face lengthy prison sentences and one is on probation.

Medina, who faces 22 years in prison, isn't copping a plea. He's taking his case to trial next month and, according to one defense attorney, may be acquitted if his victims are intimidated and refuse to testify.

Yet the State of Arizona v. Felix Medina is a relatively minor problem for Medina compared to what he faces in the court of gangland justice.

Tough as Medina appears, with his skull tattoos, bravado and powerful fist, "Gato" crumbled under pressure.

Gato violated the code of the streets and ratted on his compatriots during his police interrogation.

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