Erick Roman had a problem. Roman was the leader, or “First Crown,” of the Latin Kings’ Royal Lion Tribe in Maryland. His gang was growing, on its way to having nearly 200 members in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties. But it had only been around since 2007 and was fighting for respect with internationally feared rival MS-13.
Roman thought one of the gang’s female members, a “Latin Queen,” was spending too much time with her boyfriend, who belittled the Kings. So Roman ordered three underlings to teach the man some respect.
On Jan. 8, 2008, at about 4 a.m., the Kings hurled two Molotov cocktails at the house in Rockville where the Latin Queen and her boyfriend were staying. One bottle struck the building. The other hit the concrete patio outside. A burst of fire lit the early morning.
The five people in the house were awakened by smashing glass and the whoosh of gas igniting. They scrambled to dial 9-1-1.
Roman had sent his message, but it was a costly one for his gang.
The Kings were suspected in shootouts with MS-13, robberies of drug dealers and prostitutes and a series of beatings and stabbings. But it was the firebombing that brought them to the attention of a decorated agent in the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — an agent who led an anti-gang team that would risk everything to bring down Maryland’s Latin Kings.
A Brutal Trail
The Regional Area Gang Enforcement unit, part of ATF’s Baltimore field division, is based in Greenbelt. It is headed by Chris Trainor, who previously earned the Attorney General’s Award for Distinguished Service for overseeing high-profile criminal investigations as an ATF attache in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
In 2008, RAGE was notified that Montgomery County Police had three young men in custody for firebombing a house in Rockville. No one was hurt. The suspects said they were Latin Kings acting on orders.
One of the Kings gave Trainor’s crew access to his MySpace page. A RAGE agent who had previously worked in New York recognized Miguel Cruz in some of the photos. He told his fellow agents that if “King Skibee” was involved, this was a serious Latin Kings faction.
Trainor’s crew set up an undercover MySpace account, representing themselves as a young female from the neighborhood, and began corresponding with Latin Kings. They gathered enough evidence to obtain search warrants to look inside 70 Latin King accounts.
The online intelligence was staggering. There were photos of Latin Kings gatherings, pictures of weapons and e-mails that discussed their crimes and how the gang operated.
As the investigation progressed, the agents also uncovered phone numbers and records of calls — records that implicated Roman and his right-hand man, Roddy Paredes Jr., in the April 2008 murder of John Realpe Montoya.
Montoya was shot to death in mid-afternoon in a residential neighborhood within sight of the University of Maryland’s tallest buildings. He was 28 years old.
Chinua Shepperson pulled the trigger, but he was ordered to do so by Roman and Paredes.
The Washington Post reported then that Montoya was slain near a wall spray-painted with MS-13 graffiti. There was no mention of the Latin Kings in the article. But Roman, Paredes and Shepperson had left one key link between their gang and the murder: Gabby, the woman who had introduced Paredes to Montoya.
She called Paredes a few days later, screaming and crying.
“I know it was you,” she said. “I’m going to tell the police and everybody.”
It was too much heat for Paredes and Roman. They left Shepperson to fend for himself and hopped a flight to Puerto Rico.
A Lone Agent
The RAGE unit began building a federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations case against the Kings, but after Montoya’s murder, things suddenly went quiet in Prince George’s County. The unit needed human intelligence.
One agent, whose name has been withheld at the request of ATF, agreed to go undercover and infiltrate the gang.
In June 2008, the RAGE informant began buying guns from the Latin Kings. ATF agents matched the guns he bought to weapons reported stolen, while the informant got close to its members and earned their trust.
What he found was an organization in disarray, abandoned by its leaders and split among rivals vying to be the new First Crown. The power center was shifting from Prince George’s County to Montgomery County, but the old guard was desperately trying to maintain its influence.
Francisco Ortiz, aka “King Pone,” was the Third Crown, and with Roman and Paredes gone he thought the gang was his to lead. He started meeting with Latin Kings in Philadelphia and New York City. He decreed that any Kings who couldn’t pay their dues at meetings would be beaten. And he tried to intimidate anyone who dared challenge him. Court records show that in October 2008, he left several menacing phone messages with another King he thought tried to strip him of power.
“I’m gonna cut your f****** fingers off,” Ortiz yelled in one of the messages. “I’m gonna cut your f****** tongue so you can’t speak no more on behalf of nobody….You aren’t safe nowhere….I’m gonna cut your head off and put it on my mantle.”
Days later Ortiz directed all the Kings to remove photos of guns and knives from their MySpace pages — he suspected the police were building a RICO case against them.
The ATF informant’s safety was increasingly precarious. The Latin Kings did not take “snitching” lightly.
In February 2009, a group of them went to a house in Wheaton to confront Jonathan Gutierrez, a Montgomery County King. They thought Gutierrez was passing information to MS-13. They dragged him into a basement and forced him to hold up the gang’s “crown” hand-sign while two members pointed guns at him. Brandon Smith, the new Third Crown, paced the floor in front of Gutierrez for hours with a knife, threatening to kill him if he “dropped his crown.”
According to court documents, Smith told Gutierrez he wanted to see him “leaking” on the floor. He sliced a deep gash into his face. He told Gutierrez he was going to leave the house in a body bag. Then Smith placed a call to Ortiz and told him he had cut Gutierrez and was planning to kill him.
Within minutes, Montgomery County Police arrived at the door and ordered everyone out. Smith forced Gutierrez to wear a mask to cover his wounded face, but the cops removed it and revealed a slash that would require 150 stitches.
Years later, ATF would not reveal how the police had known to show up at Gutierrez’ house.
Against the Odds
The ATF informant was with the Latin Kings for a year and half. He faced the possibility of sharing Gutierrez’ fate — or worse — every day. Other agents later infiltrated the gang, and found members still stinging over the way Paredes and Roman had fled and eager to implicate them in a host of crimes.
Trainor’s staff kept assembling the pieces to their RICO puzzle. They wanted to take down the Kings’ leadership before Ortiz or someone equally brutal could bring them all together. But they wanted Roman and Paredes too.
As luck would have it, the pair couldn’t stay away.
Paredes went from Puerto Rico to Guatemala and hid out with family for a few months. But he returned to Maryland’s Eastern Shore in 2009. He thought he bluffed his way past customs agents by telling them the “Royal” tattoo on his right arm and the “Lion” tattoo on his left arm were only meant to honor his favorite animal. But Trainor’s RAGE unit was tracking him from the moment he entered the U.S.
Roman tried to start a Latin King tribe in Puerto Rico, but it sputtered when he was arrested following a car accident. He, too, returned to Maryland in 2009, and RAGE started surveillance on his mother’s house in Hyattsville where he was staying. He nearly forced their hand when he was picked up by Prince George’s County Police, charged with domestic violence and taken for a mental health evaluation after an episode of out-of-control anger.
The RAGE agents couldn’t book Roman on the RICO charges without overplaying their hand and revealing their investigation of the other Kings. But they learned that County Police planned to hold Roman for three days — lining up perfectly with RAGE’s plan for a Nov. 19 takedown.
On that day, ATF’s Special Response Team and local SWAT teams descended on Maryland’s Latin Kings in a multi-pronged, highly-coordinated bust. In the end, the Kings went quietly. Roman was transferred to federal custody. Paredes was apprehended at his father’s home in Langley Park without incident. Sixteen others were also arrested, including Brandon Smith, Miguel Cruz, Chinua Shepperson and Francisco Ortiz. Remy Heath, aka “King Mellow,” fled to New York, but was apprehended a month later.
Federal prosecutors Emily Glatfelter, David Ira Salem and Lara Marie Peirce took on the RICO case and justice was uncommonly swift given the scope and nature of the charges. By March 2011, all 19 defendants had either pleaded guilty or been convicted for the roles in the gang.
Roman pleaded guilty to conspiracy to participate in a racketeering enterprise and was sentenced to 60 years in a federal penitentiary. Paredes also pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against Shepperson in the hopes of avoiding a life sentence. He is awaiting sentencing. Shepperson was found guilty on five counts on March 14, including murder in aid of racketeering for killing John Realpe Montoya. He is scheduled to be sentenced June 17 and could face life in prison.
“We took out the leadership of those 200 (Maryland Latin Kings),” Trainor said. “The people that were the organizers of this gang, the people that were the ‘shot-callers’ of this gang are the people that we targeted. We effectively cut the heart out of this organization.”
Andy Marso is a reporter at the Capital News Service, which is based at the University of Maryland’s Phillip Merrill College of Journalism.