Dial Eme For Murder: How Prosecutors Teamed With Mexican Mafia In Death Penalty Case

Wanger at the microphone and flanked by OCDA colleagues

It’s odd when both the Mexican Mafia and the Orange County district attorney’s office (OCDA) want the same guy dead. It’s remarkable when two assumed-enemy outfits work together to achieve a mutual goal. But that is what happened to Anthony R. Navarro Jr.

The Mexican Mafia (a.k.a. La Eme, the pronunciation of M en español) put Navarro on its “hard candy list,” marking him for death. OCDA simultaneously worked to hand him capital punishment. In the process, a church-going prosecutor and an unsavory disciple of Eme bosses collaborated in a Santa Ana courtroom. As a result, Navarro today sits on San Quentin State Prison’s death row.

The 48-year-old hoodlum admits he’s no angel. At the age of 12, he became a gangster, two years later landing in the California Youth Authority for manslaughter. He inked his body with underworld tattoos, took the moniker “Droopy” and became a leader of the Pacoima Flats Gang in the San Fernando Valley. During a prison stint for robbery, the smooth-talking car enthusiast, small-time methamphetamine dealer and $19-per-hour Warner Bros. studio extra won prized Mexican Mafia associate status.

But troubling issues linger about the 2007 trial in which a jury convicted Navarro of ordering the murder of David Montemayor, a Buena Park man who ran a trucking company. It’s possible he is guilty; prosecutor Dan Wagner gathered weighty circumstantial evidence. But Navarro could be innocent; the government’s case was hardly airtight. It is certain, however, the prosecution team cheated.

The trouble for Wagner begins with a question: Does it make sense for Navarro to alert cops of a pending hit he was orchestrating and supposedly would later execute?

Long before Montemayor’s Oct. 2, 2002, killing near Knott’s Berry Farm, Navarro reached out to Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) agent James Starkey and Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officer Rod Rodriguez. He relayed sketchy information: A woman tied to the Mexican Mafia wanted a crew to kidnap or kill a man in Orange County. The officers asked for the target’s identity. Navarro didn’t know the man’s name, so no investigation resulted. Navarro claims he was in Las Vegas while Pacoima Flats Gang soldiers–Armando Macias, Alberto Martinez and Gerardo Lopez–took Montemayor’s life.

At trial, Wagner ridiculed Navarro’s law-enforcement calls as a ploy to deflect culpability. Yet the defendant’s police ties weren’t imaginary: The FBI was the first agency to recruit Navarro as a confidential informant in 2000. Records hail his contributions. He described Mexican Mafia hierarchies; provided intelligence about gun and dope sales; helped agents hunt an Israeli mobster; and thwarted five murder plots, including one against an LAPD officer.

Navarro also exhibited bravery. For the FBI’s San Diego branch, he took an “extremely dangerous” mission to infiltrate Tijuana’s lethal Arellano-Felix Cartel. For the agency’s LA bureau, he supplied Mexican Mafia bosses with vehicles equipped with surveillance devices. He attended Eme meetings wearing a tiny camera embedded in his shirt and carrying a doctored pager that transmitted audio after batteries had been removed.

Navarro’s reward? Cops ignored his petty dope deals, saved him from a weapons-possession case and paid his government-housing rent. In 2001, his compensation totaled $30,000. Navarro’s lawyer, H. Russell Halpern, asked his clients’ FBI handler, Curran Thomerson, if the agency got its money’s worth–to which Thomerson replied, “Yeah.”

Appreciative police outside of Orange County argued that if guilty in the Montemayor case, Navarro deserved nothing worse than life in prison without parole. But Wagner wanted his first death-penalty win. The strength of his case rested on cellphone records that seemingly link the killers to Navarro before, during and after the crime. The defendant admitted ties to the incriminating number, but he said he’d stopped using that particular gang phone weeks before the murder.

The prosecutor called Pico Rivera resident Edelmira Corona as his star witness. Corona worked for Montemayor and his sister Deborah Perna, who allegedly wanted to take over the family business. After her arrest in connection with the murder, she told police Perna sought people willing to kill her brother. So Corona contacted her drug dealer: Navarro. Sometime between April and June 2002, she handed him a note with Montemayor’s address. For nearly five months, the plot remained idle, except Navarro tipped his ATF and LAPD handlers.

Meanwhile, Corona repeatedly visited Pelican Bay State Prison to meet Mexican Mafia leadership as a gang courier, according to court records. Under oath, the woman denied the observation, saying she had no clue her friends were gangsters and describing their relationships as “pen pals.” Wagner accepted her claim that contacts with Eme bosses were coincidental to the murder. He gave her a sweetheart, 14-year term in exchange for fingering Perna and Navarro.

But Corona had no credibility. On the stand, she told wild tales and, during cross-examination by Halpern, confessed she was a prolific liar. She couldn’t explain her frequent trips throughout the United States and Mexico on a pretax income of $200 per week. She gave implausible stories about meetings with Navarro. You have to wonder if Corona even needed him to carry out the crime; one of her sex partners, Macias, gunned down Montemayor.

Yet Wagner maintained the fibber was Navarro, who testified he couldn’t have ordered the hit because the gang soldiers were under orders to kill him for being a snitch. In the weeks after the murder, Navarro deposited money into his co-defendants’ jail-commissary accounts. The prosecutor saw the transactions as proof he was “very friendly” with the killers. Navarro insisted the funds were meant to avert his demise.

Before a February 2003 pretrial hearing, Orange County Sheriff’s Department deputies learned the co-defendants wanted Navarro dead and later said they accidentally placed the four men–Navarro being the only one restricted by body chains–in the same cell. Montemayor’s unshackled killers slammed shanks into Droopy’s body 10 or 11 times while calling him “a rat.” Miraculously, he survived.

The attack didn’t dissuade the deputy DA from mocking the defendant’s kill list claim. Cops know mob leadership must approve execution of another high-ranking hoodlum. But Wagner wanted no Mexican Mafia ties to his case. His theory? The soldiers must have been angry Navarro tricked them into believing the gang ordered Montemayor’s hit and took it upon themselves to stab him.

Illustration by Mark Dancey

 

Fate didn’t aid Wagner’s cause. A Sept. 23, 2007, raid on Martinez’s jail cell recovered Eme‘s “hard candy list” wrapped around a large shank. The gang document demanded Navarro’s death.

The law requires prosecution teams to surrender crucial evidence to the defense, but that’s not what happened. Two days after the raid and in front of jurors, Wagner lampooned the notion the Mexican Mafia wanted Navarro killed. In his closing arguments on Oct. 15–22 days after the raid–he called the defense stance “ridiculous.” Another month lapsed with the government continuing to hide the evidence. That’s when a jury of seven men and five women wrongly believed it fully understood the case and sent Navarro to death row.

Nowadays, Wagner says he can’t remember how he undermined the defense. But the duplicity didn’t stop with Navarro. Seth Tunstall, who took possession of Martinez’s hit list, is the same deputy a judge blasted in March for hiding evidence and committing perjury in Wagner’s current death-penalty case: People v. Scott Dekraai. OCDA hasn’t filed charges. In fact, court records show prosecutors continue to work closely with Tunstall, a signal that recent reform proclamations by District Attorney Tony Rackauckas are a sham.

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