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.
Worse, in terrorizing the neighborhood, Gato invoked the name of the New Mexican Mafia, falsely claiming membership in the notorious and brutal prison gang he linked up with while behind bars. And he failed to kick any booty he extorted under the prison gang's banner back to the prison thugs. They are said to be unamused.
Department of Corrections officials who monitor prison gangs say Medina is likely to be a target of the New Mexican Mafia, known as the New Eme.
DOC spokeswoman Camilla Stongin says Medina's outlook is bleak.
"He's a dead man," she says.
Medina was a gangster from the start.
"I was born into LCM," he told police.
Most of the time, gang prospects are "jumped" into a gang, usually through a beating. But the progeny of a respected gang family or longtime residents are often accepted into the gang without initiation -- they're "born in."
Medina was raised by his mother and grandmother, and protected by a twin sister who gave him money for clothes and other necessities even as an adult. His mother's boyfriend provided little positive influence, selling drugs and landing in prison. He also has two younger siblings.
The Medina family lived on $2,200 a month -- which, in the Milpas neighborhood, is a pretty healthy income.
Felix Medina's mother, Mary, says there are no gangs in the neighborhood.
"Police harass you for no stupid reason just because you are walking to the store, or walking to the park," she says.
Mary Medina says police reports alleging crimes committed by her son are untrue. At the same time, she says she didn't know her son was shot in the stomach in August 1998 nor that he is the leader of Eastside LCM.
"I don't talk to Felix. I don't talk to nobody. I'm always at work," she says.
Court records show Felix Medina dropped out of school after the eighth grade. He ascended the rungs of a Latino street gang from a pre-teen "pee-wee" into teenage "chico" status.
Medina committed a series of "smash and grab" robberies that landed him in Adobe Mountain juvenile correction center, which enhanced his status in the gang.
By the time he was 16, he was helping a neighborhood adult steal cars and routinely beating up older LCM gang members who tried to intimidate him.
"I would get crazy and fuck them up," Medina told police.
By 1991, Medina was involved in an auto theft ring led by Pedro Ortiz, who would bring his 14-year-old son along for the action. The trio specialized in stealing late-model pickup trucks and four-wheel-drive vehicles. They got busted after selling a 1987 Suburban to undercover officers for $240.
Medina got $20 for each car he stole.
Medina was arrested in January 1992 and charged with seven counts of auto theft and trafficking in stolen property. He told his probation officer that he expected to be sent back to Adobe Mountain for the crimes, since he was still a juvenile.
But prosecutors had his case transferred to adult court. Medina pleaded guilty to two counts of attempted theft and was sentenced in May 1992 to four years of intensive probation -- although he gave the court indications he would rather serve prison time.
"It does not appear the defendant is overly motivated to complete probation at this time," wrote probation officer Laura Lanich in her presentence report. "He seems more concerned with completing his sentence as soon as possible, regardless of what it is."
It didn't take long for Medina to violate his probation. He failed to pay restitution, complete community service and obtain a full-time job. By October 1992, a warrant had been issued.
He was arrested in November, and by January 1993, Medina was in the DOC's Shock Incarceration Program. Records indicate Medina was dubious about the boot-camp-type program -- one drill instructor cited him for "not putting forth any effort during morning physical training."
Medina did use the 100-day program to improve his academic skills, which, despite his high IQ, were dismal. He raised his grade level in reading from 4.7 to 8.4, math from 5.5 to 7.1 and language from 1.7 to 4.7.
But the program failed to instill any desire in Medina to change his life.
Medina was sent to the state prison in Perryville, where he quickly violated prison rules. In March 1994, one of his girlfriends came for a visit and sneaked into the inmate's rest room. According to prison records, Medina "violated visitation rules when your visitor... exited the inmate rest room after you were observed doing so."
In August 1994, Medina was released from prison on work furlough, but went on the lam in December 1994, returning to his gang lifestyle.
When police caught up with Medina in May 1995, he resisted arrest and briefly eluded officers before he was subdued. During a melee, a girlfriend threw a few punches, hitting one officer in the face, police say.
Medina was sent back to prison for a second stint, where he continued to stir up trouble. In December 1995, he was cited after refusing an order to pick up trash with a reply of "Fuck you."
In prison, Medina had plenty of time to add to his tattoo collection that drapes his shoulders, arms, chest, stomach, back and legs. His life story of crime, prison, women and gangs is woven in a tapestry of black ink.
Medina was released from prison in September 1996 and returned immediately to the Milpas to join his fellow LCM gangsters. Doing time elevated him to the top classification in gangland -- grande or veterano.
The only thing higher was to be the leader of the gang. One way to accomplish that was to let everybody in the Milpas know his story. There was no need for talk.
"He would walk around without his shirt all the time," recalls one LCM member. "He's got a lot of tattoos and wanted to show them off."
Another route to the top was to commit outrageous crimes. Medina went on a crime spree in the fall of 1998.
According to police reports, in September 1998, Medina allegedly grabbed a gun out of a man's hand, punched the man in the face and pointed the gun at him. Medina then allegedly demanded that the man turn over a second gun, which he had tucked into his belt. The man complied.
On October 13, 1998, police allege that Medina pulled a gun on a man attempting to buy marijuana and demanded the man's money. When the man refused, Medina pistol-whipped him until the man turned over $200.
In December, police allege, Medina stood in the middle of a street brandishing a gun. When a car approached, he pointed the gun at the driver's head and yelled, "I'll shoot you." Medina ordered the victim to give him his money and yanked jewelry from the driver's neck, yelling, "Puro LCM!"
On December 11, police allege Medina threatened to shoot the driver of a parked truck unless he gave Medina and another gang member a set of wheel rims in the back of the truck.
At the same time Medina was on the alleged crime spree, gang members say he also was using a powerful combination of crack and marijuana called primo. The drug, which has effects similar to PCP, made Medina's behavior even more unpredictable.
"He started smoking that and people were just like standing still, afraid to move and not doing anything to piss him off," says one gang associate.
Felix Medina was in complete control of Eastside LCM.
A man named Gordo was the main crack source in the Milpas, police say. He set up shop not far from the LCM gang house on South 13th Place. The illegal alien had drug ties to Mexico and could bring in plenty of dope.
"That wetback was, like, just scary, man," Medina said during his police interrogation.
But Gordo wasn't scary enough to stand on his own. Gordo needed protection from rip-offs. Medina and his LCM crew fit the bill.
"He used to tell me, 'Hey, Gato, take care of him [Gordo]. Make sure nobody tries to jack [rob] him,'" Medina said.
Medina was happy to oblige, as long as Gordo kept him supplied with drugs.
"I would have dope all the time and just kick it," Medina said. "That's how I stood [sic] high."
Before long, other LCM members followed Medina's lead and were hitting drugs hard at the party house, which lacked water and electricity but was booby-trapped with carpet-covered holes where an unknowing person like a cop could fall through.
"They were jacking motherfuckers like crazy," says a gang member who, fearing retribution, asked to be known as Jose.
Crackheads from across the city would converge on South 13th Place, looking for a deal. They frequently were met by LCM members who would literally steal cash out of their hands, Jose says in a taped interview.
In fact, the crack-jacking spectacle became a favorite amusement.
"We would watch them all day long, dude -- just jacking people. Left and right. Left and right. Left and right. Then buy some crack, and then smoke the crack, jack somebody, buy some crack, smoke the crack, jack somebody. We would just watch it all day long, fucking laughing," says Jose.
Sometimes the crackheads would complain about being ripped off.
"They would come and stop right where we are, and yell, 'Hey, motherfucker!...' We ain't going to take no shit, especially from a crackhead. So we get up and if they won't fucking get out, we beat them up and kick them out of the neighborhood.
"A lot of times, it didn't have to come to that. They would just say, 'That's fucked up.... Why did you guys do me like that?' And we say, 'We didn't do you like shit.'"
LCM members would deliver the absurd truth to the dopers: "You got jacked by another crackhead who wants the hit worse than you do," Jose says.
Another gang member, "Ricardo," tells New Times that Medina would demand cash from Gordo and his associates -- as much as $6,000 a day -- a sum police could not confirm.
"They really couldn't say too much because we had a little army backing him," says Ricardo. "Either get shipped out of here or your house burns up, either way.
"These guys weren't playing around. They had grenades, AK-47s. Really, they had better guns than the police. Fully automatics, semiautomatics, dynamite."
Fellow gang members and police allege Medina also took part in the jackings, an accusation Medina denies.
"Not only did he [Medina] take the money, he took everything else you had -- a watch. I seen a lot of guys [who were robbed by Medina], maybe on a daily basis," says Ricardo in a taped interview.
Medina assured the police he had no reason to steal.
"I could go to any wetback and tell them, 'What's up? Can I get some?' And they would give it to me, man," Medina claimed. "They would have to give it to me. I didn't have to jack. I didn't have to point a gun."
Phoenix Police Detective Derek Stephenson places a four-inch-thick black binder on a table at police headquarters and leafs through pages chronicling the police racketeering investigation of the Eastside Los Cuatro Milpas.
There are photographs of Medina taken over the years by cops who encountered him and his LCM homeboys, mostly during traffic stops. Early photos show a slender, defiant kid throwing down the LCM gang sign. His postprison photos reveal a beefed up, angry man. Others depict his strung-out crack phase and subsequent flabby recovery.
Besides Medina, the police identified several top LCM members they say are responsible for numerous armed robberies, assaults, thefts, narcotics trafficking and generally terrorizing the neighborhood. They include:
Margarito Rodarte, 20, also known as Lito. Police and gang members say the 5-10, 275-pound Rodarte worshiped Medina and became his shadow. Rodarte was abandoned by his parents at a young age and relied on Medina for money and status.
Rodarte joined LCM when he was 14 and dropped out of high school two credits short of graduating. He traded a diploma for a cocaine addiction. He suffered a serious knife wound to his stomach in a gang scrap in January 1998. He'd already racked up several felony convictions prior to the latest police investigation.
Rodarte told police he joined LCM because "I just wanted to be more accepted."
Joseph Torres Munguia, 24, also known as Baby Joe. Munguia says he was born into LCM and, like Medina, was convicted of several felonies as a teenager. The 5-8, 150-pound Munguia was sentenced to a four-year prison term in 1993 on attempted auto theft and burglary convictions.
Munguia started drinking alcohol when he was 12 and ingesting cocaine when he was 15. He added heroin to the mix when he was 21.
Munguia told police he wasn't concerned about going back to prison. "It doesn't matter. It's the same in prison as out. I'll walk out again."
Raynaldo Daniel Valenzuela, 20, also known as Porky and Fat Ray. Valenzuela, 5-11, 245 pounds, lived north of the Milpas neighborhood but was jumped into LCM anyway. He earned respect by surviving three separate shootings, one of which landed him in the hospital for more than a month.
Unlike the other LCM grandes, Valenzuela had no felony convictions prior to the latest police investigation of LCM. He worked full-time as a shop helper to support his grandmother, who raised him.
Valenzuela told police he joined LCM after members of a rival gang pointed a gun at his head as he walked home from Phoenix Preparatory Academy. "Life would be easier for me," he told police.
This is just the latest crop of Eastside Los Cuatro Milpas grandes. Many have come before, with most ending up in prison or dead. More are sure to follow.
"As long as you have the neighborhood, you'll have gangs. That's just the culture," says Angelo Orozco, who grew up in the neighborhood and has worked the last 22 years in the area.
Orozco is a maintenance man at the Wesley Community Center, which provides a wide array of services to the community ranging from recreation to preschool. Orozco has seen many kids become enmeshed in the gang culture, sometimes with disastrous results.
"Five or six of them are dead," he says. "They didn't even make it past 20. Some didn't make it past 18."
Los Cuatro Milpas was started in the mid-1950s by a core group of about 30 Hispanic men who lived in the area bounded by 11th, 14th, Mohave and Yuma streets. The area has expanded over the years to its present-day boundaries of Seventh, 16th and Mohave streets and Buckeye Road.
The primarily Hispanic neighborhood is surrounded by industrial and transportation corridors -- Sky Harbor to the east, Interstate 17 to the south and the Southern Pacific Railroad yard to the north. Pounded by noise, contaminated by pollution and depressed by grinding poverty, the Milpas have transformed from a bucolic irrigated neighborhood with farm fields, gardens and massive trees into a dusty tangle of junkyards, vacant lots and collapsing houses. Interspersed are a few well-kept homes surrounded by rose gardens, a signal that hope persists amid desperation.
Helen Brock built her home in the neighborhood in 1947 and has seen the decay and increase in gang violence. She isn't the type to run and hide. She's actively involved in a city-sponsored program called "Fight Back" that provides basic -- although limited -- services to the community to counter blight, poverty and gangs.
"You can't let them intimidate you. They have shot at my house and shot at my cars," she says while standing in the driveway of her home, which is surrounded by a barbed-wire-topped chain-link fence.
Los Cuatro Milpas didn't always terrorize residents. It was formed to protect its members from rival gangs, including Golden Gate to the east, Barrio Ann Ott to the south and Varrio Campito Locos to the north. Its name was derived from a popular song -- "Los Cuatro Milpas" -- played at neighborhood dances in the 1930s.
Over the years, the rival gangs have waned, allowing LCM to expand. In the mid-1980s, LCM set up satellite operations in far-flung areas of Phoenix. The smaller factions of LCM began identifying themselves by their geographic location.
Eastside LCM is the original and largest, with about 160 members. Southside LCM, Northside LCM and Westside LCM are generally loyal to each other, although Medina's activities created rifts between the various factions, gang members say.
About two years ago, the number of shootings and armed robberies in the Eastside LCM neighborhood spiked. It became obvious that the gang was going through an active cycle, which is typical following the release of a gang member from prison -- in this case, Medina.
"Every time we drove through there, we would see tons of foot traffic, guys hanging around, gangsters hanging out on the side of the streets," Detective Stephenson says. "We would drive through and they would move to the side of the street or they would just take off running."
Police stepped up surveillance and started pulling over gang members for traffic violations, making arrests for warrants and drug possession. Before long, a pattern of criminal activity emerged.
"Some of the heavy dope users were getting jacked," Stephenson says. "As soon as they buy it, a group of guys would jump them, beat them up, take their money and take the dope back.
"The sad part is most of these folks, even after getting jacked, they still went back to the [Milpas] neighborhood to buy their dope because they couldn't find it anywhere else."
Stephenson says police suspected LCM members were responsible for the thefts and assaults.
"If you have a gang neighborhood, and you got an area that is in the heart of the neighborhood, and there are dope sales going on in that area, I can guarantee you that either they [the gang] is involved in it or they are controlling it," Stephenson says.
"We knew it had to be, but how do we find out who the people are?"
Many residents are afraid of the gang members -- or have family ties to the gang. Few people are willing to talk to police.
"This is a neighborhood where they instill a lot of fear in people," Stephenson says.
Relying on interviews of crime victims, tips from rival gang members and even some inside information from LCM members, police confirmed that Medina and his LCM pals were involved.
"We learned that a couple of Mexican nationals were connected to the drug trade and bringing dope into the neighborhood. LCM was allowing them to sell the dope," Stephenson says.
The investigation picked up steam late last year as evidence mounted of a major drug operation generating significant cash flow.
"The primary concern is that people are going to start dying if this goes unchecked," he says.
By March, police had enough evidence to obtain an arrest warrant for Medina on charges of armed robbery, aggravated assault, kidnaping and weapons possession. More important, there was enough evidence also to charge Medina and his associates under state laws targeting Racketeering Influenced Criminal Organizations -- known as RICO.
RICO statutes require police to show that crimes were committed to benefit a syndicate. Police must prove suspects participated in a gang over a period of time. One way police document gang activity is to photograph gang members displaying tattoos, wearing gang clothing and throwing down gang signs.
This information becomes crucial when police make arrests. Instead of a simple charge of armed robbery, documented gangbangers may also stand accused of participating in a criminal syndicate.
"If the [crimes] are all being done to bring stuff back to the gang . . . then we know we have a criminal syndicate," Stephenson explains.
While it takes much more legwork, time and money to build a RICO case, police say RICO convictions are getting gang members' attention.
Police have used the state RICO statute to arrest leaders of at least a dozen other Phoenix gangs in the past two years, and have made more than 180 arrests in all, says Central City Precinct Commander Joe Klima. The targeted gangs included East Ninth Street, Mexican Brown Pride, Varrios Hollywood and Southside Posse Bloods.
The Eastside LCM case was one of the most difficult investigations conducted so far, Klima says. Although the number of arrests was relatively small compared to other cases, the LCM bust broke up the leadership of a deeply entrenched, multigenerational gang operating in a small geographic area, he says.
"The crimes were focused on individuals in the community . . . neighbors and people who came in to buy drugs," Klima says.
Police Sergeant P.J. Ferraro says the RICO statutes have been an important factor in reducing overall gang violence by one-third since the early 1990s. The RICO statutes allow police to take a more aggressive stance against criminal street gangs rather than reacting to violent crimes.
"We are not just going to wait for these guys to do drive-bys," Ferraro says.
Attacking gangs at first appears to be an overwhelming task. Phoenix police have documented 356 criminal street gangs with more than 6,100 members during the past 10 years, Ferraro says.
However, only about 30 to 40 of these gangs with about 350 members are routinely committing crimes, Ferraro says.
Besides busting gang leaders, police have added two new elements to their arsenal with the Eastside LCM case. Immediately after the arrests of Medina and his associates, police offered remaining gang members an array of gang intervention services, including job training and employment and educational opportunities.
While gang members have largely rejected these services, police have stepped up their community involvement by attending neighborhood meetings, encouraging the formation of a Block Watch and urging residents to call police and leave addresses of known drug houses.
As a further hammer to encourage gang members to leave the gang, police have requested a Maricopa County Superior Court judge to issue a civil injunction prohibiting gang members from congregating in the neighborhood.
(See accompanying story.)
Gang members are slowly adjusting their actions as a result of the RICO statutes. Police say some gang members are more reluctant to talk to gang squad officers, declare their membership in gangs or display tattoos or other gang insignia, knowing that the evidence could later be used in a racketeering case that brings stiff prison sentences.
Instead of serving a one- or two-year sentence in the state prison -- which only enhances a hard-core gangbanger's status -- a RICO conviction can send a gang member away for five years or longer.
A RICO conviction requires that the full sentence be served -- no time off for good behavior. There is no possibility of parole. A 10-year sentence is a 10-year sentence.
Last December, Medina knew the cops were after him. He moved to a girlfriend's house about a mile away. Medina said he was happy to be there because he was helping care for his new baby boy -- his third child.
But he decided to pay his mother a daytime visit in the Milpas.
The cops were waiting.
A little after 4 p.m. on March 20, Felix Medina left his mother's house on East Cocopah Street and got into the back seat of a taxi.
Officer John Meche was patrolling on Cocopah when he saw Medina in the cab, which turned north on 13th Street. Meche tried several times to stop it.
"When the cab got to 1127 South 13th Street, Medina took one last look at me. The cab stopped and Medina ran eastbound through the property. I put out a broadcast over the radio and set up a perimeter," Meche states in his report.
More than 20 police units responded to the scene.
Medina ran inside a nearby gang member's house. Police surrounded the property. After obtaining permission from the owner to enter, Meche and another officer began searching the house.
"I found Medina in the northeast bathroom, hiding in the shower," Meche states. "Medina was then taken into custody without incident."
At the police station, Detective Steven Denny joined Stephenson at the beginning of Medina's videotaped interrogation.
"What's all this bullshit for?" Medina asked.
Stephenson read Medina his rights and described crimes he believed Medina committed, including armed robberies and assaults.
Medina denied everything, saying his fellow gang members had kept him hooked on drugs and were committing crimes to impress him.
"Honestly, I've been there when a lot of shit happened," Medina said. "But I was always the type to kick back. And like my homies were trying to impress me. At the time when I was getting high, everybody was there to keep me high. Like instead of saying, 'Gato, go home. Go home. You are really fucked up. Go home.' They were always there to get me high."
Stephenson told Medina he'd spoken to LCM members as well as victims who say Medina was a one-man crime wave. Stephenson was stretching the truth. He hadn't interviewed in detail Medina's closest associates -- Rodarte, Munguia and Valenzuela. But it isn't illegal for police to provide misleading information during an interrogation.
The suggestion that his subordinates had ratted him out clearly rattled Medina.
Stephenson bored in, questioning Medina about a November 1997 assault and robbery of a man we'll call Miguel. The officer said he knew Medina was involved in the beating, which sent Miguel to the hospital, and the theft of Miguel's wallet and jewelry.
Medina denied being involved, but indicated disdain for Miguel, who once lived in the Milpas. Medina said Miguel gave police information that led to Medina's 1995 arrest and reincarceration in the state prison.
"Every time he would go past, I would yell, 'Fuck you, you snitch,'" Medina said. But he claimed he had never hurt Miguel because he was a friend of Miguel's wife, who was like a sister to him.
Stephenson kept pressing.
"Who jumped him? I already know who it is," the officer said.
Medina said he was at a motel with a woman when Miguel was assaulted. He heard about the attack the next day.
Then Medina made a crucial decision. He started giving the police the names of fellow gang members.
"They told me that Lito hit him with a bottle," Medina said, referring to his most loyal subject, Margarito Rodarte.
"You and I both know that Lito wasn't the only one who did it," replied Stephenson, who was relying primarily on a statement by Miguel.
"Yeah, we know that," said Medina.
"I know the other guys. You probably don't want to give them up," Stephenson said.
"Hold on. Hold on. I might. I might. Hold on. I'm trying to think who that was," Medina said.
Stephenson reeled in his catch.
"While you think about it, think to yourself whether or not these guys would protect you," Stephenson said.
"That's probably why you're staying with the baby because you know they would tell on you," the detective said.
"When it comes right down to it, do they stick by you? You know better than that," Stephenson said.
Medina pondered for a moment, picking at the bottom of his shoe, then blurted, "Was it Baby Joe? 'Cause I think they said Baby Joe had something to do with it. Baby Joe. I think that's the only one I remember."
(Police records indicate Baby Joe was not involved in the assault.)
"I know of one other," Stephenson replied. "I can't believe you don't know. . . . I know you know who the other guy is. Think hard about whether this guy is protecting you."
"Give me a name and I'll honestly tell you yes or no," Medina replied.
"I'll throw out some names and you tell me if they were there. Was Indio there?"
"No," said Medina.
"Was Fat Ray there?"
"He might have had something to do with it," Medina said. "I think he got his little hits in there."
In the span of minutes, Medina informed on three of his closest gang associates -- including one who wasn't even involved. Before the interview ended, Medina had ratted out one more gang member, saying he had used a gun in a crime.
Ironically, Rodarte, Munguia and Valenzuela had not been questioned on the assault and robbery of Miguel. The three were not arrested until 11 days later.
And when they were questioned, each kept silent, never mentioning Medina's alleged role. Police allege Medina stole jewelry from Miguel, yelling, "You owe me, punk."
Asked about the assault on Miguel, Rodarte told Stephenson that Miguel "got his ass kicked pretty much. I don't really remember that much."
Munguia refused to discuss any incidents with Stephenson. "I'll just deal with it in court," Munguia said.
Valenzuela confirmed that Miguel got "his ass beat bad" and admitted that he kicked him after Miguel bled on his car. But Valenzuela refused to name anyone else involved in the beating.
He told Stephenson he would fear for his life if he gave up anyone's name.
"I know I would die," Valenzuela said. "No hesitation. There's no mercy."
No one has ever escaped from Special Management Units I & II at the Arizona State Prison in Florence.
That's where Death Row is.
And that's where the state keeps several hundred confirmed prison gang members locked up nearly 24 hours a day in computer-controlled, single-bunk cells.
The prison gang members are isolated from the general inmate population because they are prone to kill rival gang members on sight.
There are 389 documented gang inmates in Arizona, and an unknown number of inmates whose gang affiliation has not been determined by prison officials.
The violent nature of prison gangs has a direct impact on criminal street gangs.
"Just about everyone who is a member of a [prison gang] was at one time or another a member of a criminal street gang," says Todd Gerrish, a DOC Security Threat Group Unit supervisor.
To many street gang members, serving a stint in prison and becoming a member of a prison gang is akin to going to one of the nation's top graduate schools.
Once released from custody, a prison gang member often returns to his street gang and resumes criminal activities, but now in a leadership role as a veterano.
Street gangs often become dormant after a powerful leader is arrested or killed. The street gang may languish for years, only to resurrect with the release from prison of a former member who has ascended into prison gang ranks.
It's a revolving door of crime, with the most violent rising to the top.
There are about a half-dozen prison gangs in the Arizona prison system. The strongest and most violent are the white supremacist Aryan Brotherhood, the Border Brothers (Mexican nationals) and the New Mexican Mafia for Latinos from the United States.
Admittance to prison gangs is strictly controlled. Prospects must complete a series of tasks before they are "patched in" to a prison gang; the tasks include murder and assault.
Once an inmate is accepted into a prison gang, his former association with his criminal street gang becomes secondary. Prison gang members released from custody may return to their old neighborhood and commit crimes with their street gang, but their primary loyalty is to the prison gang.
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, 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.
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.
Medina noticed a photographer taking his picture and smiled, then displayed his middle finger.
A few minutes later, Medina joked with his attorney during a recess while his mother, younger sister and a heavily tattooed man provided moral support from the court gallery. When the hearing concluded, the tattooed man flashed what appeared to be a gang sign to Medina as he headed out the door.
Medina's public defender, Stephen C. Kunkle, complained to Galati about New Times taking photographs of Medina without Medina's permission. Galati reminded Kunkle that the court sessions are public proceedings and that the press is welcome.
During the hearing, Medina rejected the state's plea-bargain offer for a 12-year prison term; a trial expected to last one to two weeks is scheduled for November 30.
"They want him to plead to everything," Kunkle says when asked why Medina rejected the plea bargain.
The other three defendants in the RICO case already have settled.
Joe "Baby Joe" Munguia was sentenced to five years in prison after pleading guilty to one count of an armed robbery, a crime Medina is also charged with. Munguia also pleaded guilty to participating in a criminal street gang.
Margarito "Lito" Rodarte will be sentenced October 15. He's pleaded guilty to aggravated assault in the Miguel beating, possession of marijuana and participating in a criminal street gang. Rodarte faces seven to 10 years in prison.
Ray "Fat Ray" Valenzuela also pleaded guilty to the aggravated assault on Miguel and to participating in a criminal street gang. Valenzuela, who had no previous felony convictions and has had a job for several years, was given three years' intensive probation and ordered to cease all contact with gang members.
Detective Stephenson says the case against Medina is strong. Medina is charged in the same crimes that Munguia, Rodarte and Valenzuela have already admitted committing.
Victims of the crimes have also indicated they will testify in court, Stephenson says.
And Medina acknowledged in his police interview that he has been in possession of firearms, including a shotgun he carried in the trunk of his car. It is illegal for Medina to possess a firearm because of his previous felony convictions.
But not everyone is convinced Medina's fate is sealed. Valenzuela's defense attorney, Michael Freeman, says victims may change their mind about testifying because they are afraid of repercussions.
Whatever the outcome of the trial, Felix Medina has taken a hard fall. He's no longer trusted by his homeboys and the New Eme has a score to settle with him. The onetime gangbangers' idol is a marked man.
"The bottom line is Felix did have a lot of pull," one gang associate tells New Times. "He had a lot of fuckin' pull. With the neighborhood and with whatever the guys in prison said."
For a time, he provided the Eastside LCM the glory all gangbangers crave.
"For him being part of our neighborhood brought us a lot of power, glamour and respect. It's what every gang member wants, to be the top dog. He was for a while, the top dog.
"He was the baddest dude that I know and a lot of people think the same way. Every gang member -- Hispanic -- would look at him like he was almost a god."
See previous stories in the Hard Core series here.
Contact John Dougherty at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org
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