LOS ANGELES – A Pomona woman who acted as a “señora” – or a high-level female associate for an imprisoned Mexican Mafia member – was sentenced today to 144 months in federal prison for using her power on the street to solicit a murder and for participating in a carjacking attempt that resulted in a shooting.
Cheryl Perez-Castaneda, 58, was sentenced via videoconference by United States District Judge George H. Wu. She pleaded guilty in October 2020 to one count of conspiracy to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act and one count of using a firearm during a crime of violence.
Perez-Castaneda was a high-level associate of a Mexican Mafia cell run by Michael Lerma, 63, a.k.a. “Pomona Mike” and “Big Mike.” Lerma exercised control over, and extorted drug proceeds from, Latino street gangs in and around Pomona, as well as from inmates at Calipatria State Prison in Imperial County, according to a federal grand jury indictment.
Members of Lerma’s criminal enterprise also engaged in robberies, identity theft and fraud, drug trafficking, kidnapping, and other acts of violence, the indictment alleges. Lerma profited from these criminal activities when top-level female associates known as “señoras” deposited proceeds into his prison account, court documents state.
One of those associates was Perez-Castaneda, who, from February 2012 to July 2016, engaged in the traditional and expected duties of a “señora” – collecting extortionate “taxes” from Pomona drug dealers; distributing the drug proceeds to the Mexican Mafia, including Lerma, who was incarcerated at Pelican Bay State Prison; and giving orders to others regarding the racketeering enterprise’s criminal activities.
But Perez-Castaneda also used her power as Lerma’s voice on the street to solicit the murder of a Los Angeles County Jail inmate in July 2013 in retaliation for the shooting of her son. When Perez-Castaneda was informed that the victim had been stabbed, but not killed, she sought and obtained the approval of a Mexican Mafia member to have the victim placed on a “green light” list, marking him for murder.
In July 2013, Perez-Castaneda also participated in the attempted theft of a Mercedes-Benz automobile owned by another jail inmate. When the car’s caretaker refused to hand over the vehicle, one of Perez-Castaneda’s co-defendants shot him, according to court documents. Perez-Castaneda later laughed about the shooting on a recorded telephone call.
In March 2018, a federal grand jury charged Lerma and 12 other defendants with multiple felonies, including racketeering conspiracy, violent crimes in aid of racketeering, conspiracy to distribute controlled substances, and firearms offenses. So far, prosecutors have secured five guilty pleas in this case. Trial for the other defendants in this case, including Lerma and Jose Valencia Gonzalez, the alleged shooter in the July 2013 carjacking incident, is scheduled for May 11.
This investigation was conducted by the FBI’s San Gabriel Valley Safe Streets Task Force, which is made up of agents and officers with the FBI, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the Pomona Police Department, the El Monte Police Department, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). The Pomona Police Department is the sponsoring agency of the Task Force and has been the headquarters for the task force since its inception in 2008.
This case was prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Max B. Shiner of the Violent and Organized Crime Section, and Shawn J. Nelson and Keith D. Ellison of the International Narcotics, Money Laundering, and Racketeering Section.