Marked Man

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

A freed prison gang member is required to follow orders from prison gang leaders, including carrying out contract murders and sending money and drugs back into the prison.

Eastside LCM has close ties to the New Mexican Mafia, or New Eme. In the early 1980s, the New Eme split from the original Hispanic prison gang, the Mexican Mafia. One of the first leaders of New Eme was a former Eastside LCM member named Eloy Lerma, who died of a drug overdose in the early 1990s.

Eastside LCM gangsters say most of their members are received favorably by New Eme if they are sent to prison. Medina, they say, had an opportunity to become patched in to New Eme when he was in prison, but he made some crucial mistakes.

Medina glances at family members during a September court appearance.
Paolo Vescia
Medina glances at family members during a September court appearance.

Medina, prison gang specialists say, angered New Eme leaders by claiming to be a member of the prison gang after he was released from custody when, in fact, he hadn't yet been validated, or officially "patched in."

"Felix made a claim he was a member of the New Mexican Mafia," says DOC's Gerrish. "There is no proof that he is."

He reportedly used his purported membership in New Eme to extort money from Mexican drug peddlers and to intimidate other Eastside LCM members.

After exploiting his false membership in New Eme, Medina committed another crucial mistake by not sending any funds back to New Eme inmates, says a Phoenix criminal defense attorney familiar with the case.

"Felix [Medina] was a short-timer, so he could make a lot of promises that he would send money to certain guys, put money on their books and things like that. Once he got out, he didn't do that," the attorney says.

New Eme also knows that Medina snitched on fellow LCM members.

"We do have some information that the New Eme knows he was running his mouth," Gerrish says.

Medina's status is precarious.

"They have their own code of ethics," Gerrish says. "They are not forgiving when people cross them for those type of things."

Gerrish says there is little Medina can do to improve his situation in the eyes of New Eme.

"He has no options with these guys," says Gerrish.

Ken Lewis, a DOC criminal intelligence specialist, says inmates like Medina are fodder for other inmates to prove they are worthy of being a New Eme member.

Typically, a convict isn't patched in to New Eme until he's done significant work for the gang, usually committing a murder or severely beating someone -- an initiation known as "blood in."

"There's a good chance [Medina] is going to be somebody's blood in," Lewis says.

If convicted, Medina's only hope is to be held in protective custody, which, to some inmates, is worse than a death sentence. Inmates in protective custody must stay in one of the Special Management Units.

Life is bleak in the SMUs. Prisoners spend their time in a 100-square-foot cell equipped with a toilet, bunk and a tabletop. It's difficult to see anyone else in the pod through the perforated steel doors that front each cell.

Prisoners leave their cells three times a week for 10-minute showers. They are forced to walk backward as they leave their cells, so they can be chained by guards and escorted to the shower one at a time. The only other time outside the cell is for recreation a couple times a week. Exercise consists of bouncing a rubber handball or tennis ball against four concrete walls by oneself. It's the only time an inmate will see sunlight, which is filtered through a skylight.

SMU life is trying. Occasionally, an inmate will crack up and try to maim himself or commit suicide. Photographs of self-mutilated inmates, their wrists and necks slit by anything sharp, including staples, line a wall inside the command post of SMU I.

One inmate killed himself by stuffing toilet paper in his nostrils and down his throat before slashing his neck. A photo of his wide-eyed death grimace is posted on a bulletin board above a display of knives crafted by recently executed inmate Robert "Bonzai" Vickers.

Corrections officials started placing validated prison gang members in the SMUs more than a year ago. To get out, more than 70 have renounced their gang memberships.

Prison gang members don't lightly give up membership. To do so is punishable by death. The SMU lockdown policy has angered prison gangs and is said to be the reason New Eme gang members allegedly attempted to assassinate DOC director Terry Stewart last year.

If convicted, Medina would be in a fix. He either faces a very long prison sentence in protective custody, or he risks retaliation from New Eme in general population.

"Not only does Medina have to answer to a judge and jury, he must also answer to New Eme," says Gerrish.

Felix Medina appeared anything but worried during a September court appearance before Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Frank T. Galati.

Looking healthy and fit, he joked with Rodarte while both sat in the jurors' box, waiting for their respective hearings. He'd been in custody since his March 20 arrest and appears at ease with the process.

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