LOS ANGELES – A member of the Avenues street gang who was on the run for well over a decade pleaded not guilty this morning to federal hate crimes charges stemming from the racially motivated murders of two African-American men in Highland Park.
Merced Cambero Jr., 38, whose street name was “Shadow,” entered not guilty pleas before United States District Judge Percy Anderson, who scheduled a trial on March 28.
Cambero was repatriated to the United States and turned over to the custody of special agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and detectives with the Los Angeles Police Department on February 3 at the San Ysidro Port of Entry after he was deported by Mexican immigration authorities. In the weeks leading up to his deportation, Cambero had been detained in Baja California by Mexican law enforcement officers on an unrelated matter and was found to be using a false identification. Further investigation by Mexican authorities and members of the San Diego Police Department verified Cambero’s true identity and the outstanding federal civil rights charges in Los Angeles. At his initial court appearance later that day in United States District Court in Los Angeles, Cambero was ordered held in custody without bond.
Cambero faces three felony counts, including conspiring to violate the civil rights of African Americans who resided in Highland Park. Among the victims of the plot was Kenneth Kurry Wilson, a 38-year-old African-American man who was fatally shot in Highland Park on April 18, 1999. Members of the conspiracy also murdered Christopher Bowser, an African-American man who was shot while waiting at a bus stop in Highland Park on Dec. 11, 2000.
The conspiracy charge specially alleges that Cambero:
- participated in a 1997 attack on African-American men who were playing basketball in a park;
- was among several gang members who ambushed an African-American man in 1998 and struck him in the head with a metal object;
- attacked an African-American man in a park in 1999;
- directed racial slurs at an African-American girl in a supermarket and an African-American man walking down a street in 1999; and
- was one of two triggermen in the murder of Kenneth Wilson.
The indictment also charges Cambero with violating Wilson’s civil rights by murdering him because he was African American and because he was using the public streets of Los Angeles. The third count of the indictment charges Camero with using a firearm during the commission of the federal conspiracy and hate crime charges.
Cambero was among five Avenues members who were indicted in 2004 in the first case in the nation to allege civil rights crimes against members of a street gang. The other four defendants were convicted at trial, and each was sentenced in 2006 and 2007 to life-without-parole in federal prison.
“The victims in this case were targeted simply because of their skin color and because members of the gang wanted to rid their neighborhood of African Americans,” said United States Attorney Eileen M. Decker. “The heinous conduct with which this defendant is charged has no place in this nation, and the Department of Justice will stand steadfastly against hate crimes like those charged. Despite this defendant’s efforts to avoid prosecution over the course of many years, his appearance in court today demonstrates that law enforcement and my office will be tenacious in pursuing justice against such criminal conduct.”
“The apprehension of Mr. Cambero is the latest example of success among agencies cooperating internationally,” said Deirdre Fike, the Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office. “In addition, this arrest proves that leaving the country and evading capture for 15 years will not deter law enforcement in finding justice for victims of crime; in Mr. Cambero’s case, civil rights violations involving the alleged murder of an innocent man based on the color of his skin.”
An indictment contains allegations that a defendant has committed a crime. Every defendant is presumed to be innocent until and unless proven guilty in court.
If he is convicted of the charges in the indictment, Cambero would face a potential sentence of life without parole in federal prison.
The arrest of Cambero is a result of a collaborative effort by Mexican law enforcement and immigration authorities; the San Diego Police Department; the FBI’s Los Angeles and San Diego Field Offices; and the FBI’s Legal Attaché in Mexico City. The investigation that led to the civil rights charges against Cambero was conducted by the FBI in Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Police Department.
This case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Daniel J. O’Brien of the Public Corruption and Civil Rights Section and Jennifer Chou of the Violent and Organized Crime Section.