LOS ANGELES, Calif. — Two Latino gang members displayed starkly different demeanors as they pleaded guilty today to federal hate crime charges — the Southland’s first convictions under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act — stemming from a racially motivated New Year’s Eve attack on a Black teenager in Compton.
Jeffrey “Turkey” Aguilar and Efren “Looney” Marquez admitted their roles in the assault to U.S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter Jr., who departed from the usual script at the change-of-plea hearing by questioning the defendants in detail about their crimes and commenting on their body language.
The diminutive Aguilar — who appeared meek and frightened — told Hatter he hit the 17-year-old victim on “his head” with a metal pipe.
“I assaulted him, sir,” Aguilar, 20, said in a barely audible mumble.
Hatter told him to speak up.
After pleading guilty, he walked back to his seat, head lowered.
When it was his turn, 22-year-old Marquez pushed his chest out, cocked his head and strutted to the podium.
Noting the defendant’s posture, Hatter — who is Black — commented that he had a South African friend who once observed that much could be discerned about a man by the way that he walks.
The judge told the tall, burly gang member that his co-defendant “didn’t quite walk the way you did.”
Asked by Hatter to tell the court what his actions were last New Year’s Eve, Marquez admitted threatening to shoot a second Black juvenile and driving a getaway car containing Aguilar and another gang member who was not charged.
When asked why he threatened the boy, Marquez stammered that he was “mad at the situation,” adding that he “threatened, but I didn’t have a weapon.”
The attack was part of a long-running campaign by the Compton Varrio 155 street gang to intimidate Black residents and force them out of their Compton neighborhood, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Aguilar and Marquez were both charged with “aiding and abetting and causing an act to be done” under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009.
The law makes it a federal hate crime to assault people based on race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender and gender identity. It is named after Matthew Shepard, a gay college student tortured and killed in 1998, and James Byrd Jr., a Black man who was chained to a pickup truck and dragged to his death the same year.
Aguilar and Marquez admit in their plea agreements that “race and color were substantial motivating factors for the attack on M.L.”
Both defendants face up to 10 years in federal prison when they are sentenced Jan. 6 by Hatter, Assistant U.S. Attorney Reema El-Amamy said.
Police said that Aguilar and Marquez approached the victim — identified in court papers as M.L. — as he walked along a Compton street, identified themselves as members of the gang, and told the teen that he and his family were not allowed to live in the area because they are Black.
Aguilar then hit the boy — who did not live in Compton and was merely visiting friends there — in the head with a pipe.
The gang members also referred to themselves as “NKs,” a racial term referring to someone who kills Black people, prosecutors said.
The injured boy was chased to his girlfriend’s house, where several other Black teens were gathered; and Aguilar and Marquez yelled racial epithets at the group and demanded that they get out of the neighborhood, prosecutors said.
When the juveniles managed to run into the house, Aguilar and Marquez left but returned a short time later with about 15 to 20 other gang members who stormed the victims’ homes, yelled racial slurs and warned them to get out of the neighborhood, according to prosecutors.
One of the gang members also threw a beer bottle through a window of one of the homes, police said.
Aguilar, Marquez and a teenage juvenile, who not charged, were arrested last Jan. 24 in connection with the attack.
Media reports have documented a history of race-fueled violence in Compton apparently stemming from an influx of Latinos moving to the once predominantly Black area.
Fred Shuster | City News Service