Calif.: Trend of gangs using women, girls to conduct business grows

Herald Staff Writer

Months after the death of Crystal Morado, redwood branches rustled above a shrine on Hecker Pass Road, the highway that winds over Mount Madonna from Gilroy to Watsonville.

Covered with photos, news clippings and poetry, the shrine marked the spot where the 20-year-old was likely betrayed by someone she trusted. Morado was the wife of the top leader of the Nuestra Familia gang.

It was a year ago Tuesday that a commercial trucker stopped to check her vehicle, which he noticed hadn't moved in the hour since he first passed it while traveling in the opposite direction.

The lights were on and the engine was running. Inside he found Morado's bloodied body, slumped over the steering wheel. She had been shot to death.

What he couldn't have known was that she had been swept up in a growing trend -- gangs' use of young women to keep their organization running while those in charge sit behind bars.

What the gangs don't tell the women they are recruiting is that they are considered disposable.

The shrine is gone now, and Morado's death remains unsolved. But the case still engenders a fear that keeps people frozen in silence. Those who knew anyone involved don't want their names mentioned, if they will talk at all.

A year later, no arrests have been made, and law enforcement officials say they won't release details of the crime while the investigation continues.

But gang investigators familiar with the case say Morado most likely was lured into Nuestra Familia without realizing that "no" is considered treason, punishable by death.

A Salinas native, born Crystal Ann Nenque, Morado was known to have a "contagious smile and a big heart," as one friend put it.

She attended Roosevelt Elementary School and graduated from North Salinas High in 2002. As a teen, she volunteered at the Boys and Girls Club, where she later worked. She went to the rodeo most summers. She once was a 49ers fan, but her father Robert "set her straight and she joined the Raider Nation," according to her pastor, the Rev. Tim King.

She was a member of the Church of the Nazarene, where she was baptized by King in 1996. She grew up to be a beautiful girl, then a woman and, later, the mother of a baby boy.

She was known as a kind person, one who took on others' problems as her own. But she also lived in a community where gang culture is prevalent, where men returning home from prison can be as revered as soldiers coming back from the front lines.

Rock star status|
In that environment, she began corresponding sometime in 2004 with James "Tibbs" Morado, now 57, whose celebrity was akin to a rock star.

He was one of three "generals" and the top decision-maker for the Nuestra Familia prison gang for the past decade, running street operations and ordering crimes from the gang's headquarters in Pelican Bay State Prison.

For several years, while James Morado and the other gang leaders awaited trial on racketeering charges, they were held at a high-security federal facility at the Alameda County Jail in Dublin. It was there that Crystal's letters arrived, followed by visits, where the two were separated by a glass partition.

"Jimmy" Morado's charm was obvious. In his appearances at a specially built high-security federal courtroom in San Francisco, though shackled and chained to the floor, he appeared amused, the crinkles around his eyes making him seem the most lighthearted of the numerous defendants. He joked with attorneys and co-defendants, often breaking into an easy smile.

Whether Crystal's connection with him became a whirlwind romance or more of a business relationship, investigators won't say. But sometime in late 2004, Crystal and Jimmy married.

In a matter of months, investigators say, things began to sour as Crystal resisted doing "favors" and errands for the generals -- errands the leaders considered essential to their business.

"My understanding, it was a 'I don't think I can do that' kind of thing," said former California Department of Corrections gang investigator J.R. Auten, now a consultant for law enforcement throughout the country.

Both gang members and police say Nuestra Familia, which has never allowed women to become bona fide members, has begun to use them increasingly as messengers, bankers and drug runners. Women may be less likely to be noticed or checked by police, and they are thought of as being more loyal. Some young women have been lured by easy money and free access to methamphetamine.

"Women are considered property by the gang," said Pelican Bay gang specialist Devan Hawkes. "Girlfriends, family members, and friends are considered less important than the gang itself." He quoted part of the gang's written constitution that says no member "shall put any material items, be it money, women, drugs, etc. before our familia."

"They're trying to use the women more. They're going to find them, and they're going to be swept off their feet -- they promise them a big wow," said Auten. "She could very well pay the consequences if she doesn't comply with their requests."

Auten says the gang is "going back in time" to an earlier era when women and girls were utilized more to set up post office boxes, send letters and messages to third parties and receive or deliver cash. Often, a woman's rent and bills were covered by the gang, he said.

Another Monterey County woman whose death officers say was gang-related was 25-year-old Brandi Lee Martinez, who was found shot to death in a strawberry field off Hartnell Road on the morning of July 19, 2004.

Sgt. Doug Dahman of the Monterey County Sheriff's Office said last year the brazen style of the killing -- leaving her body in an agriculture field for all to see -- is a trademark of local gangs.

On Salinas streets, young Norteños claimed the hit came from their side.

The last day she was seen in Salinas, Crystal Morado left her infant son with her mother, according to a relative.

They had all gone to a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant. Crystal received a cell phone call and then told her mother she had to meet someone. She'd be back soon, the relative said.

The next morning, her body was found. She had been shot in a way that one California gang investigator said most likely meant the killer or an accomplice was someone she trusted. Undercover law enforcement officers attended her funeral, keeping tabs on all who attended.

Intercepted message|
Weeks later, the investigator said, prison officials intercepted a message from the generals in the Alameda County Jail, apparently explaining why she was killed.

A prison message was intercepted in which Nuestra Familia leaders explained that Morado was killed because she was no longer "functioning."

"She wasn't performing her duties the way the generals wanted," the investigator said. "She really didn't want to get caught up in that stuff, and when she resisted, she was killed." Word spread among the gang that the generals might be behind the slaying, and that months later, James Morado tried to recruit a replacement for Crystal.

A former high-level Nuestra Familia member said, "I don't know who did it, but I know who called it. It was 'Tibbs' (James Morado)."

Sgt. Dean Baker of the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office heads up the team leading the investigation. He is more careful about the possible motive, and won't say whether Crystal's death was connected to James Morado or if it was a boyfriend or friend. His detectives still come to Salinas regularly to interview witnesses.

"We have a couple of things in the hopper," Baker said. "It's not an inactive case."

Control like the Mob|
James Morado is now 1,200 miles away, housed in the "Super Max" federal prison in Florence, Colo. A new leadership has taken hold in Pelican Bay, and on the street, loyalties are unclear.

Yet the gang still has control in the Salinas Valley as strong as the Mafia ever held in Chicago. No one dares speak of the killings that cross a line few believed the gang would ever do -- the killing of young women. But as the gang rebuilds, it will be planning to use women even more, Auten said.

There is anger among those who knew Crystal Nenque, anger also among those who never knew her but were moved by her story.

The outrage is always clipped by fear. Always, it's the fear of retaliation.

In the shadow of that fear, the memory of the young women whose lives were cut down is spoken of only in whispers.

George B. Sanchez also contributed to this article.

Monterey County Herald (http://www.montereyherald.com/)

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