Anthony Calabrese suffered no vision problems and wasn't a moron in September 2012, but the 23-year-old college student couldn't have known he had just seen a mirage inside the Orange County Jail (OCJ). Only a madman would think law enforcement officers had staged an elaborate, multi-hour, multi-pronged con game aimed at prompting him--one of 6,000 local detainees--to inadvertently forfeit his constitutional right to not self-incriminate. But Anaheim police detectives and sheriff's deputies anxious to solve a March 2007, drive-by murder indeed targeted Calabrese, whom they suspected of Barrio Small Town gang membership, for trickery.
The notorious Mexican Mafia ruthlessly reigns over all major Latino gangs in Southern California and, according to law enforcement officials, maintains a no-drive-by shootings policy; any affiliate who violates it without their permission suffers severe repercussions. Because deputies believed Calabrese might have violated the no-drive-by policy when he allegedly killed rival Citron Street gangster Armando Hernandez, and because a recovered "green light list"--a gang document detailing the identities of individuals to be attacked on sight--included Calabrese's name, they placed him in protective custody. Calabrese's housing location away from the general inmate population also--not accidentally--gave officers an easier forum to employ their secret weapon: a pair of ratas.
Numerous agencies--Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department (LASD), Orange County Sheriff's Department (OCSD), Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE), as well as police departments in Anaheim, Long Beach, Placentia, Fullerton, Whittier and Buena Park--had quietly used two, high-ranking, Mexican Mafia career criminals as informants for more than half a decade. Behind the scenes in law enforcement circles, 39-year-old Raymond Cuevas and 35-year-old Jose Paredes are legendary, colorful characters. The convicted felons' histories of violent depravity haven't prevented them from bonding with cops, who've consummated the friendships by giving personal gifts and awarding substantial jail perks, from sofas in comfy jail cells to DVD players and almost limitless Taco Bell runs.
In the midst of becoming one of the most prolific tipster teams in the annals of OC criminal history, Cuevas and Paredes took on an unwitting Calabrese. The target didn't see two-faced rats seeking to lure incriminating statements, but rather tattooed dudes who looked and acted as unrepentant, hardcore cholos. Calabrese certainly didn't know police briefed Cuevas and Paredes about details prosecutors wanted elicited for a conviction.
By law, informant operations cannot include inducements--including threats involving violence or participation in drug deals--to win confessions. In a key, 1991 U.S. Supreme Court case, Arizona v. Fulminante, a paid FBI informant posing as an organized-crime figure offered the government's target protection from looming jail violence if he openly discussed his case. Prosecutors filed charges based on the informant's work and won. But the high court's justices declared the informant improperly obtained the confession, an error requiring reversal of the conviction.
Despite the ban on such coercion, deputies placed Cuevas in the protective-custody area with Calabrese so that the wire-wearing snitch could offer a powerful inducement: Confess to me, and I'll get you taken off the "green light" list. Additional characters participated in the production; Paredes and an undercover cop later reiterated the promise to Calabrese during a meeting inside the county jail's clandestinely monitored inmate-visitor section.
Deputy District Attorney Janine L. Madera argued during 2014 hearings that Calabrese's rights--along with those of three other defendants in the case--hadn't been violated because the informants didn't say they would inflict pain on the target if he failed to confess. That point is apparently muddy because, as Calabrese defense attorney Douglas Myers noted in court, chunks of the informants' audio recordings are indecipherable. Nevertheless, Superior Court Judge Jonathan Fish, a former prosecutor, sided with the prosecution, and the controversial case remains pending.
But it's not just the Calabrese matter raising questions about Cuevas and Paredes and the legitimacy of more than 200 secret operations in Orange and Los Angeles counties since 2009. In league with police and malleable judges, prosecutors say they've shielded key records and evidence from defense attorneys not to mask corruption and slyly bolster conviction rates, but rather to protect the lives of these stool pigeons.
Though declared with all the sincerity prosecutors can muster, the excuse is laughably bogus. Law enforcement and court records indicate Mexican Mafia bosses have known the informants' identities for at least three years. A California Court of Appeal just issued a ruling identifying Paredes and Cuevas by name and reversing a conviction won by LA prosecutors based on the work of these star snitches. Defense attorneys are now declaring war on Orange County district attorney's (OCDA) office prosecutors and their reliance on the tattling twosome.
It's no secret how the Los Angeles-born Cuevas succeeded in the criminal underworld. Though he has noticeable tics--a squeaky voice, constant sniffles and hand rubbing--he possesses charisma, street smarts and chameleon-like skills. He joined West Side Rebels Trece, a Mexican Mafia subsidiary that historically claimed West Hollywood, as a runaway at the age of 9; it took "Puppet"--his gang moniker--two years to land in juvenile hall. The drug dealer and car thief celebrated entry into adulthood with a stint in LA County Jail when he turned 18. One of Cuevas' arms has a "Big 13" tattoo, the other a Mayan 13 symbol; his left hand carries an Aztec symbol meaning "Thirst for blood." His rap sheet includes four armed robberies, and he has been sent to prison on six occasions.
Cuevas' gang credentials allowed him to serve as the top shot caller inside the Mexican Mafia's most profitable institution beginning in May 2009. During the four months he ran the LASD's North County Correctional Facility (NCCF) in Castaic, he forced other Latino inmates to purchase narcotics, a scheme that produced $60,000 for 53-year-old gang leader Darryl Baca--a.k.a. "Night Owl," a notorious Pelican Bay State Prison inmate. In court proceedings, Cuevas also left no doubt as to what happens to inmates who resisted his extortion plots.
"If someone threatens your life and tells you, 'Hey, sir, I'm going to stab you [if you don't pay money],' what's your first instinct?" he testified in a November 2012 attempted-murder trial in LA. "What are you going to do?
"Regardless, after he pays [the extortion amount], he will still get stabbed," Cuevas continued, noting that assaults--particularly with sharp, jail-concocted shanks--were necessary to create fear and maintain power.
Cuevas is cocky, too: "Every time I land somewhere, I usually take it over." And he celebrates warped ambition: "[A fellow gangster] stole one candy bar; I can steal two candy bars."
But unbeknownst to the Mexican Mafia, Cuevas eventually became an informant for LASD. In testimony inside an LA courthouse, he explained he abandoned the gang and accepted the validity of California's criminal laws for noble reasons.
"I mean, it's the right thing," he said in July 2011.
Never mind that at the time of his conversion to righteousness, he faced California's Three Strikes Law and a sentence of life in prison as a dangerous career criminal. Snitching didn't just save him from a horrible plight. The LASD helped to place Cuevas on the path to becoming one of the state's most lucratively paid informants, winning a rate, though shrouded in mystery, that could be as high as $600 per hour, tax-free.
His future partner, Paredes, joined La Mirada Locos in Hollywood in 1993 at age 14, taking the gang moniker "Bouncer." Four years later, he earned the first of many state prison trips for committing an assault with a deadly weapon (a gun) after winning a plea deal that reduced his original charge: conspiracy to commit murder. Most of his adult life has been spent flip-flopping between county jails and penitentiaries (including Folsom State Prison) with rare moments of freedom that ended in crimes, perpetuating the cycle five times. His chest tattoos include "SUR" and an Aztec warrior shield.
"It symbolizes putting in the work [for] the Mexican Mafia," testified Paredes, who explained that only "a soldier in the Mexican Mafia" who has committed violence to enhance the gang's clout is allowed to wear the symbol. "It has to be earned--stabbing inmates, stalking inmates, anything that comes up."
Asked in court to quantify the number of assaults and murders he has committed, he agreed to an answer: "Many." But, like his pal Cuevas, he also saw the light: having collected seven felony strikes and facing a life-in-prison punishment in 2010, he became the chief snitch for LASD deputy Francis Hardiman.
"I was tired of the game," explained Paredes, who continued to commit crimes after becoming an informant and declaring for a jury a new personal motto: "Tell the truth."
Court testimony and records law enforcement officials are willing to share about the informants' work don't match, but it seems Cuevas and Paredes began their lives as snitches independently working jails in Los Angeles County. A February 2011 article in the Whittier Daily News on a preliminary hearing about a restaurant massacre of Mongols gang members publicly exposed Cuevas as an informant against the Mexican Mafia. Within months, the two gangsters' workload shifted to Orange County, where the idea of using them as a team originated among local law enforcement who had heard of the success their colleagues in LA found with the pair. The employment of informants is, of course, a legitimate police tool, and the duo's reports have led to the convictions of multiple defendants.
The reason for their success isn't a mystery: Cuevas and Paredes play their roles with ease. For example, inside the Anaheim Police Detention Facility in February 2013, officers set the pair up with a recording device in a cell. Then they placed a 23-year-old suspect in an ongoing 2011 murder probe with the informants, left the three men alone and listened surreptitiously.
In the moments before the target entered the cell, Cuevas recorded himself using the toilet, accused a nearby police officer of wearing "gay shoes," told Paredes he has "a small dick" and proclaimed, "Operation Sucker Takedown."
"Anaconda!" Paredes replied.
A humored Cuevas corrected himself: "Operation Anaconda Sucker Takedown!"
Cuevas and Paredes have perfected a routine out of The Sting. They pretend they've been arrested, complain about the police, cuss repeatedly, showcase intimate knowledge of Southern California gang life and members, and wonder aloud about forensic capabilities.
Then comes the confidence game: They talk openly about the details of their fake crimes as a way to signal the target can trust them. Along the way, Cuevas and Paredes alternately shift between pretending to not care about the target's situation and acting as if they sympathize with him. Once the target's guard is down, they'll ask him to concoct an alibi with their aid. Or, in hushed voices, they'll seek a confession. If the target isn't cooperative, they'll add pressure by supplying false inflammatory information, commonly claiming they'd overheard cops talking about having an eyewitness against him. At times, impatient cops who have been monitoring discussions will go to the cell, make a provocative statement tying the target to a suspected crime and leave in hopes the informants can capitalize on the prompting.
The informants' stunts with police and deputies extend to work outside of police facilities. For example, if Cuevas and Paredes can't obtain a confession while inside a cell, cops have placed one or both of the informants in a police vehicle with a target, then driven them to OCJ. When they arrive, the driving officer pretends there's a malfunction, either with jail computers or the gate. He complains angrily about the situation to add legitimacy to the ruse and exits the vehicle, leaving the wire-wearing informant with the fooled target.
But the transportation scheme has involved illegal inducements.
According to law enforcement evidence obtained by the Weekly, a Buena Park Police Department cop placed Cuevas in a vehicle with a 2012 target and drove them to OCSD headquarters in Santa Ana.
"Okay, they are having problems with the fucking gate," the disingenuously aggravated officer lied as he left the vehicle. "It's going to be a few minutes. Don't act stupid. I ain't got time for this shit."
Cuevas went to work, trying to lure the target into talking, but the 23-year-old man was either suspicious or not a loquacious person. Instead of taking the bait, he responded mostly with "Uh-huh" or "no" or head nods, almost always resisting uttering full sentences. He certainly wasn't confessing to any crime. The cop periodically returned to the vehicle, received a signal from the informant that the mission hadn't been successful and left again--a sequence that occurred several times over a half-hour period. Frustrated, Cuevas promised to include the target in a lucrative, illegal drug deal.
"I'm going to bail out," he said. "You want this dope? It's hot, fool. I'll hook up a P.O. box in Anaheim. You send all the money over there. Anybody who doesn't pay on time, you make sure to double up on them. It's a lot of money, fool. You going to be able to handle it? Send me 80 percent of what you make, and you keep the rest for yourself. Basically, this is free dope [for you]. You should be able to make a lot of fucking money. You know how to sell that shit, right?"
The target mumbled inaudibly. More than a minute of silence ensued before Cuevas resumed his inducement, saying, "It will be fucking 'Ching! Ching! Ching!'"
It's not known what happened next, but charges remain against the mark.
Cuevas and Paredes kept ringing up wins for OC prosecutors. Meanwhile, local defense lawyers began to suspect there was a nefarious reason prosecutors blocked them from knowing if Cuevas and Paredes--whose work is often clouded in partly inaudible or missing recordings--have cheated. Seeking such details is a legitimate way to hold police accountable by testing the veracity of government witnesses. But authorities also foil those efforts by handing over relevant data years late--even after trials and defendants are in prison, absurdly redacting records, hiding entire documents and giving defense lawyers conflicting, incomplete discovery.
Defense attorneys eventually found their opening to attack OCDA and blemish the sterling reputations of Cuevas and Paredes: a case dating back to their LA days that started with two shankings.
Inside NCCF in 2009, a vicious Mexican Mafia power struggle over drug profits developed between "Night Owl" Baca and rival Lalo Martinez while both gangsters served sentences elsewhere. Felix Vega represented Martinez in the facility, while Baca won allegiance from Cuevas, who did as he pleased under the watch of sheriff's deputies who looked away while Cuevas continued his criminal ways. But that August, two of Vega's soldiers caught Cuevas off-guard in a jail dorm and used razor blades to tear bloody, gaping holes in his scalp, neck and back. Though he lost control of NCCF, Cuevas survived the attack with scars.
Free from custody in October 2009, Cuevas--still a secret but highly active informant--received permission from Baca, his wife's uncle, to "whack" Vega in retaliation. During a telephone call from loyal NCCF inmates, he gave the order to "take the wind" of Vega--prison lingo for kill--with shanks. Cuevas nowadays claims he held no animus against Vega and made the allegedly insincere declaration only to shield his informant role; afterward, he claimed in court testimony, he quickly alerted jail deputies to place Vega in protective status from the scheduled hit.
Three options explain what happened next: Either deputies didn't get a call from Cuevas, they got the call but didn't care about the situation, or they tacitly aided in the attack.
Several weeks after Cuevas' hit order, deputies still had not shielded Vega. In fact, officers who had been monitoring the war between Mexican Mafia factions in "Operation Safe Jails" moved him to Dorm 826, an area with inmates loyal to Baca and Cuevas. On Nov. 27, 2009, two gangsters launched a brutal, eight-minute attack that left their victim barely alive, needing nearly 30 staples to reattach the flesh on his face and scalp. Deputies denied receiving the tip from Cuevas, but according to court records, these same deputies also waited to inspect jail phone recordings of Cuevas ordering the murder until after the sheriff's department "accidentally" destroyed the information.
Based on the LASD investigation, Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Karen Brako in 2011 charged Daniel Nunez and Victor Guillen with the attempted murder of Vega. Who was the government's star witness against the two men? Cuevas, who admits he relayed the kill order to his gang underlings inside NCCF. However, he escaped charges.
Brako's case failed. Jurors voted 10-2 to acquit Nunez and 9-3 to acquit Guillen. After the trial, members of the citizens' panel said they didn't find the sheriff's department investigation credible, according to court records. Nevertheless, the prosecutor took Nunez and Guillen to a second trial in 2012.
But Brako faced a serious predicament. She'd lost the first round while using only Cuevas. Her hand would be strengthened if deputy Hardiman--her lead detective in the attack--found an eyewitness for the second trial, and--voila!--he did: Paredes.
The move was a gamble, however. Paredes had worked as an informant for Hardiman for at least three years; producing him for the second trial risked embarrassment: The deputy testified under oath at a March 2011 hearing he'd never been able to find any eyewitnesses to the 2009 Vega attack.
During the second trial, Omar Bakari, who represented Nunez, discovered a series of puzzling acts. Hardiman claimed he never thought to interview Paredes--who had been housed in Vega's dorm--about the case; Paredes insisted he'd told his deputy handler no later than August 2011 in a recorded interview that he'd watched the attack; Hardiman maintained he'd never taken a single note about the potentially case-closing revelations until September 2011; Brako knew she had a witness during the first trial but didn't share the information with the defendants' lawyers; and the sheriff's department destroyed forensic evidence from the assault after defense lawyers requested to inspect it.
Softening the blows to the government's case, Hardiman--who'd previously bragged he didn't need to take interview notes because of his superior memory--suffered repeated bouts of memory loss on the witness stand. He'd been too busy with other work to focus on an attempted murder case, he angrily explained. For her part, Brako suggested that protecting the informants from probing defense lawyers trumped the right to a fair trial or, alternatively, advocated that the informants' histories were irrelevant to defense teams.
"There was a trial where Mr. Paredes still is nowhere in the picture," Bakari told Judge Bob S. Bowers during a sidebar discussion at the second trial. "They get a hung jury, and then he surfaces as a percipient witness. All of this smells. It doesn't pass the smell test whatsoever."
Added Tracy Grayson, Guillen's defense lawyer, "Every time there is a weakness in the case, Ms. Brako and Deputy Hardiman go and get a paid informant to come and shore up the case. Credibility is this whole case."
During the retrial, Bowers--appointed to the bench in 1993 by then-Governor Pete Wilson--fretted about not wanting to harm the government's position, limited defense lawyers from questioning Hardiman about his inconsistencies, adopted Cuevas' self-serving version that he had no responsibility for relaying the hit order on Vega, ruled that deputies destroying evidence in the case was almost irrelevant, and allowed Brako to present a major argument to the jury when Grayson wasn't in the courthouse to make objections.
Following those problematic events, the second jury--whose members were blocked from learning critical information about weaknesses in the government's case--convicted Nunez and Guillen. Yet, celebrations by law enforcement were premature; three appellate justices studied the trial this year and were shocked.
On a 91 freeway off-ramp in Orange County in February 1998, gunmen leaped out of an Oldsmobile sedan and murdered Elizabeth Begaren, a 40-year-old corrections officer. Anaheim police brought Rudy Duran, a prison inmate, to OCJ in 2012 and placed him in a cell next to Cuevas. Stemming from that operation, prosecutors won a 2013 conviction against Begaren's husband, Nuzzio, who Duran claimed hired him and two other hoodlums for $6,000 to execute the hit, aimed at securing proceeds from a $1 million life-insurance policy.
By the time Cuevas and Paredes rolled into the OC jail system, their status as squealers had paid off. Not only have they escaped pending punishments of life in prison, but they've also received comparatively royal treatment while in custody. Authorities have worked to conceal the benefits, but records obtained by the Weekly reveal taxpayers have funded the following perks for both men: special housing cell with a sofa, cable TV, DVD player and DVD movies, PlayStation 3 and games, microwave, refrigerator, coffee maker, and hot plate; stationary exercise bicycle, dip station and weights; $150 weekly grocery-bill tab; access to jail kitchen to cook own meals; at least $13,000 in cash for relatives; cell phones; 30 free telephone calling cards; laptop computer; books and magazines; radios; generous family visitation rights; free private dental services; home-cooked meals; frequent access to free jumbo meals from Carl's Jr., Del Taco, Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald's and Taco Bell; out-of-custody family visits, with transportation provided by undercover officers; special laundry privileges; and more than $180,000 in tax-free cash.
Because of his work, Paredes will likely join his family in the federal Witness Protection Program when he emerges from custody in early 2016. Anaheim PD bought Cuevas a Bible and a July 2012 birthday cake. And, most shockingly, both informants have had, according to LASD records, "permission to cover certain cell lights and certain cameras" in their jail housing units "for darkness and privacy." Officials have denied they have permitted female companionship.
The Begaren case was the first time Cuevas worked in OC, but prosecutors hid the informant's existence from defense lawyers for at least four defendants in the 91 freeway killing, according to Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders. During evidentiary hearings earlier this year against his client, Seal Beach salon massacre shooter Scott Dekraai, Sanders exposed numerous government abuses of informant programs inside the county jail. His work won a ruling from Judge Thomas M. Goethals this August that prosecutors, deputies and cops lied under oath or faked memory loss to mask wrongdoing.
"In view of what was revealed in the hearings in People v. Dekraai, it hardly seems surprising that evidence obtained in the very first [Cuevas] operation conducted in this county appears to have been improperly concealed," Sanders wrote in a Sept. 8 letter to prosecutors. "If this very serious discovery violation did occur, it would not only undermine a murder conviction, but [also] call into question the credibility of the other prosecutions in which these informants were used to obtain incriminating statements. . . . Evidence of concealment is critical in determining whether members of law enforcement actively encouraged or permitted coercive conduct by these informants."
James Laird, a senior Orange County prosecutor, admitted his office seeks to keep informants' identities a secret "as long as possible" because of the "safety issue" of ex-gangsters working for the government. The "logical consequence" of these names becoming public, he says, is "realistic threats."
Though he acknowledges Cuevas and Paredes "are known in LA" as gang snitches and their names have been in numerous public documents for several years, he's gambling there is some sort of protective shield keeping Mexican Mafia bosses, who control both LA and OC, from realizing the duo operating in LA are the same as the one working here.
"We would hate for this information to get into the wrong hands," Laird said. In advance of the publication of this article, the Weekly advised the DA's office that, given the informants are named in both LA and OC public court files, we would not redact their identities.
Acting on policies espoused by Laird, however, prosecutor Madera is still refusing in the Calabrese case to tell defense lawyers the informants' names and has omitted details of their criminal histories and benefits to thwart defense investigators from fully learning about their backgrounds. This year, she argued she should be allowed to keep defense lawyers in the dark about Cuevas and Paredes' identities until 24 hours before a future trial. She implied the Mexican Mafia "might learn of their cooperation with law enforcement" if defense teams received the names.
"The safety of potential witnesses should be a primary concern of any court," the prosecutor wrote.
While Madera demands anonymity for the already-exposed Cuevas and Paredes, distributes incomplete case lists involving the informants' work, and insists there have never been credibility issues, a California Court of Appeal panel has been discussing the two informants' identities in public for 86 weeks.
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On July 30, justices Rita Miller, Victoria Gerrard Chaney and Jeffrey W. Johnson in Los Angeles lambasted the government actors in the old Nunez and Guillen case. Defense lawyers were "completely deprived" of pursuing "their theory that Hardiman intentionally procured Paredes' false testimony when the prosecution was faced with retrying the case," they declared. The appellate court reversed the convictions.
Despite that failure, Cuevas and Paredes remain active informants. Their influence might be felt for years. More than a dozen OC criminal cases involving their snitching are proceeding to trials, with defense teams still in the dark. Nice work if you can get it, no?