‘Climate of fear’: Missouri street gang put police under surveillance, shot at rivals

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A member of a violent St. Joseph street gang that has been connected to a homicide and drug trafficking in western Missouri pleaded guilty Monday to a racketeering conspiracy charge.

Angel Antonio Martinez-Torres, 40, admitted prosecutors had enough evidence to prove he shot a rival gang member in the foot and was involved the Matias-Torres Gang, which was named after its leader.

At the federal courthouse in downtown Kansas City, U.S. District Judge Roseann Ketchmark conditionally accepted Martinez-Torres’ binding plea agreement, which, if accepted at his sentencing, could send him to prison for more than 16 years.

Martinez-Torres was among eight gang members and associates alleged to have made money by selling drugs, robbing rival dealers and extorting protection money from their rivals and innocent victims, according to federal prosecutors. The St. Joseph-based group also operated in Kansas, Iowa and Massachusetts, and recruited many of its members from Puerto Rico, prosecutors said.

The criminal enterprise engaged in murder, attempted murder, assault and trafficking of heroin, crack cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana, among other crimes, prosecutors said.

An indictment accused the gang of promoting a “climate of fear” in the community through “repeated waves of gunfire, beatings and destruction of property, among other crimes of violence and intimidation.”

Members allegedly conducted surveillance of police officials, analyzing department staffing and investigating informants, according to the indictment, and stored firearms in traps and hiding places, such as holes in the ground and cutouts in walls.

Also known as “Tony,” Martinez-Torres was described by prosecutors as a prominent gang member because of his role in its narcotics distribution. As he appeared shackled in court Tuesday, he told the judge through a translator that he has a learning disability and that he came to Missouri from Puerto Rico in 2013.

If the agreement is accepted, the four other charges against Martinez-Torres, such as possession of a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking, will be dropped.

Among the accusations in the indictment, prosecutors said Martinez-Torres swallowed a drug so police officers could not seize it in July 2015 and he tried to hide a gun from police in March 2016.

His attorney, James L. Spies, asked the judge if his client could receive better medical treatment than what he said he was getting at the Caldwell County Detention Center. Spies said Martinez-Torres was shot years ago and had increased pain from that injury.

Victor Matias-Torres, 35, also known as “King Fenese,” was the alleged leader of the gang that began operating when he moved to St. Joseph in 2010. He carried out much of the gang’s criminal activity, according to prosecutors.

Before he moved to Missouri, Matias-Torres became a member of the notorious Latin Kings street gang in Philadelphia and rose to the leadership position of “first crown” in the area, records show. The violent principles used in his St. Joseph gang were acquired through the Latin Kings, according to the indictment.

Community members referred to the gang as the Latin Kings, though they were not formally affiliated, prosecutors said.

The gang ran its enterprise under a “loose code of conduct,” according to prosecutors, and required members get approval to carry out a shooting. Those who appeared disloyal were confronted with violence, according to the indictment.

Matias-Torres, for example, once tried to gun down Martinez-Torres when he believed he was challenging his leadership, according to the 40-page indictment filed in January 2017.

In another incident, a member’s refusal to participate in a robbery “nearly resulted in that member’s death by gunfire,” prosecutors said.

One member, Luis Alfredo Villegas-Rosa, 28, allegedly killed John O. Baynham Jr. on Feb. 5, 2015, in St. Joseph. Villegas-Rosa was charged in the indictment with discharging a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence and murder resulting from the use of a firearm in relation to a crime of violence.

Gang members were indicted in five other incidents where victims were shot or shot at. They also face allegations of holding up at least five check-cashing businesses in St. Joseph.

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Luke Nozicka covers local crime and federal courts for The Kansas City Star. Before joining The Star, he covered breaking news and courts for The Des Moines Register.