Washington Gabriel Mercedes would later work in the Maryland medical examiner’s office, but he had little experience with bodies on the day he found John Realpe Montoya’s in April 2008.
Montoya had been murdered, and it was not a random act. It was an execution, planned and carried out by a branch of the Latin Kings street gang. At their peak, the Kings had nearly 200 members throughout Prince George’s and Montgomery counties — they battled rival MS-13 and were suspected in firebombings, shootings, stabbings and a host of beatings and robberies. The murder represented the height of the Latin Kings’ reign in Maryland and the depth of their brutality.
But Mercedes knew none of that then. He was walking back to his girlfriend’s place at the Marylander Condominiums in Langley Park after a late lunch at McDonald’s. He had heard what he thought might be gunshots, but it didn’t weigh on his mind. He had heard gunshots in that neighborhood before.
Mercedes crossed a field of electrical transmission towers — huge steel trees holding power lines that stretched south toward Washington, D.C., and north toward the Capital Beltway. He entered a small wooded area adjacent to the Marylander — a patch of green amid the shops and apartment complexes that line nearby University Boulevard.
As Mercedes trod the worn footpath through the woods, he saw someone on the ground in the fetal position. It was a young man wearing gray sweatpants, a white T-shirt and a pair of Nikes. Then Mercedes saw the blood, pouring from the man’s nose and mouth and pooling on the grass.
Mercedes nudged the man with his shoe. No response. He took his cell phone from his pocket and dialed 9-1-1.
Colors Run Deep
Montoya might still be alive if Roddy Paredes Jr. hadn’t worn black and gold the day he met Erick Roman.
Paredes was born in Guatemala, which made him typical in Langley Park, a haven for immigrants of all backgrounds.
Salvadoran pupuserias along University Boulevard compete with Jamaican jerk chicken grills and Vietnamese Pho noodle shops. Still, Spanish is the dominant language. Lawyers advertise themselves as “Abogados” and a local bakery is called Le Baguette de Paris, but usually no one inside is speaking English or French.
It is an area full of small businesses — immigrants working to make the American Dream their reality.
Paredes, 19, worked at one of those businesses — a party supply rental place — when he met Roman at a birthday party at the Marylander Condominiums in April 2007.
Roman, 31, had light skin and a scruffy mustache. He told Paredes he was wearing the Latin Kings’ colors and asked if he was a member of the gang. Paredes said no.
It was a recruiting opportunity. Roman told Paredes all about the Latin Kings: Their historical roots in Chicago and New York, their hierarchy of leadership — regional tribes each topped by a “First Crown, Second Crown, Third Crown, etc.,” — and their semi-secret enforcers known as “Pearls.”
Roman’s older brother was a Latin King until he died in a motorcycle accident. Through him, Roman had ties to one of the gang’s leaders in New York — Miguel Cruz, aka “King Skibee.” Roman and Cruz were trying to establish a new group of Latin Kings in Maryland: the Royal Lion Tribe. Paredes was barrel-chested, powerfully built and had a relatively clean criminal record — a perfect Pearl. Roman asked if he wanted to join.
Paredes didn’t know much about Roman, who had a history of assault charges, was prone to fits of rage and would later be diagnosed with depression, anxiety disorder and bipolar disorder.
But Paredes’ younger brother had been mugged by a member of MS-13 shortly before he met Roman. The thug had taken the kid’s prized North Face winter coat. Paredes later told a jury that was on his mind when he joined Roman in the partnership that proved deadly for Montoya.
“I saw it as more people that could help me ’cause we were having trouble with MS-13 around the neighborhood,” Paredes said. “It was just me at the time going against them and I knew MS-13 was bigger than me.”
If The Crown Fits
“Mara Salvatrucha,” aka MS-13, started with a group of Salvadoran immigrants in Los Angeles in the 1980s. It grew into one of the world’s most brutal and feared organized crime factions, with tentacles that spread to the East Coast of the U.S. and throughout Central America. New members reportedly had to suffer a 13-second beating to be initiated into the gang.
The “Maras” couldn’t operate as openly in Langley Park as they did south of the U.S. border, but their presence was obvious from the “MS-13” graffiti that appeared in one place as quickly as the police could scrub it off in another. Some members of the gang lived in the Marylander Condominiums.
The Latin Kings would have been no match for MS-13 at full strength, but police had rounded up more than 50 of Maryland’s toughest Maras in recent years. Paredes and his new friends had a window of opportunity.
Paredes did not stay a Pearl for long. He showed a taste for violence and a loyalty to the Latin Kings that quickly advanced him to Second Crown. He became known as “King Guate.”
Roman, the First Crown, recruited dozens more Kings, while Paredes helped the gang get guns — some bought and some stolen from drug dealers. The arsenal would eventually include at least 10 handguns, a sawed-off shotgun and a pair of Romanian-made AK-47 assault rifles.
Paredes and company took the fight to MS-13. When a group of young men across the street from the Marylander flashed MS-13 hand signs, the Kings opened fire with Tec-9 semi-automatic handguns.
“We assumed somebody was hit in the leg, ’cause we saw somebody running around with, like, a bum knee,” Paredes later testified.
Local Maras began to recognize Paredes as a Latin King. Three of them followed him home after work one day and when he turned and confronted them, one pulled a knife and told him to leave the neighborhood. Then he slapped Paredes in the face and left.
It was an insult Paredes would not bear quietly. He retrieved a .40-caliber pistol from his house and went looking for members of MS-13.
When he found one, he pulled out the gun. The man put his hands up.
“Chill,” the man pleaded.
Paredes shot him.
The Mara turned and ran and Paredes chased him through a parking lot between cars until he fell in the street.
“That’s when I emptied the clip in him,” Paredes later testified.
Paredes fled to Roman’s house in Laurel — one of the county’s wealthy northern suburbs. He later learned that the man he shot seven times had somehow survived.
That willingness to kill became a prerequisite for the gang.
When Roman got word of young men in neighboring Montgomery County calling themselves Latin Kings, he arranged a meeting. He wanted to see if they were deadly serious.
The Montgomery County Latin Kings were not official — not recognized by either the “Motherland” tribes in Chicago or the “Bloodline” tribes in New York. But Roman and Paredes thought they could bring them in.
After the meeting, Roman’s crew returned with some guns and drove the Montgomery County Kings to an MS-13 hangout. When they got there, police cars were parked outside.
The Kings left, but Roman and Paredes were satisfied that their new Montgomery County brethren were willing to murder Maras.
“If it wasn’t for the police, I’m pretty sure that would have happened,” Paredes testified.
No Way Out
John Realpe Montoya was not a member of MS-13. He was just another source of income to the Latin Kings.
The gang needed cash for guns, drugs, and to pay rent on Roman’s place in Laurel and its meeting spot in the Marylander Condominiums.
Many of the Kings, including Paredes, were recreational drug users. They robbed dealers, prostitutes and gun shops to finance the gang.
The threat of deadly violence hung over each robbery. According to court documents, Roman and several others forced their way into the home of a drug dealer in the Marylander complex a few months after the gang was formed. The dealer’s young daughter was inside and the Kings held her at gunpoint in the bedroom while they extorted drugs and money from him.
A year after Paredes and Roman met, they were at Paredes’ apartment in Riverdale Park, planning another robbery. They were joined by Chinua Shepperson, a slim black man with deep-set eyes who had just celebrated his 26th birthday. Shepperson was from Washington, D.C., and had a couple of minor drug and concealed weapon charges in Montgomery County. Roman told Paredes that Shepperson was a Pearl.
Paredes sometimes bought drugs from a man he called “Cypress” — John Realpe Montoya. A mutual friend named Gabby had introduced them at a party. Roman, Paredes and Shepperson hatched a plan to rob Montoya of a large amount of cocaine.
But they decided that robbing him would not be enough. Montoya had friends — friends that could come back for them. Montoya could not be left alive.
Shepperson was ordered to do the killing. Paredes produced a .38-caliber revolver — chrome with a wooden handle. Shepperson emptied the ammo and carefully wiped the fingerprints off each bullet before reloading.
Paredes called Montoya and told him he had a new customer who wanted to buy 125 grams of cocaine, worth about $3,500. They agreed to meet at the University City apartments, where Gabby lived, just south of the Marylander complex on Riggs Road.
Paredes told Shepperson he would lure Montoya behind a large trash bin in the apartment’s parking lot. Shepperson would shoot him there, barely out of sight of a busy street.
But when they got to University City, Montoya seemed skittish. Paredes saw him glance out the window of an upstairs apartment, then called him, but Montoya said he couldn’t come down. No problem, Paredes said after calling Roman and consulting with him. He would go to the Marylander and wait.
Paredes and Shepperson revised the plan. They would take Montoya to the back of the Marylander, near a small patch of trees, and kill him there.
When Montoya showed up, Paredes led him to where Shepperson was waiting. Shepperson pulled out the gun. Montoya put his arms up, his back to the wall of the complex. Shepperson was five feet away.
Paredes ordered Montoya to empty his pockets. Montoya threw the drugs, his phone and his keys on the grass. He left his hands at his sides. There was a loud crack as Shepperson, without a word, shot him in the head.
Andy Marso is a reporter at the Capital News Service, which is based at the University of Maryland’s Phillip Merrill College of Journalism. Part Two of the series will run on Friday.