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The Mexican Mafia, a hit list, a swallowed note: Lawyer charged in murder plot

Matthew Ormseth, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES — A criminal defense attorney was charged in a federal indictment unsealed last week with conspiring to murder a member of the Mexican Mafia who had fallen out of favor with the prison-based syndicate.

Gabriel Zendejas Chavez was first indicted in 2018, accused of using the confidentiality afforded by his bar license to relay messages between Mexican Mafia members held in far-flung prisons. Witnesses have testified that he helped the organization traffic drugs, collect extortion proceeds and unmask government informants.

Chavez, who taught English at high schools in Pomona while studying to become a lawyer at night, has maintained his innocence. At his trial in federal court in 2022, he testified that after he won a longtime Mexican Mafia member's release from prison in 2013, other inmates sought his representation.

Records showed Chavez conferred with dozens of Mexican Mafia members at the high-security state prison at Pelican Bay, the federal "supermax" facility in Florence, Colo., and other institutions designed to isolate gang leaders. Chavez testified he only pretended to help imprisoned gang members after one of them threatened his young daughter, telling the jury tearfully: "There's no manual for this situation."

After the panel failed to reach a verdict on racketeering and drug distribution charges, the judge declared a mistrial. Prosecutors vowed to retry Chavez.

In the superseding indictment returned last week, prosecutors implicated Chavez in the homicide of DMM-6, short for "Deceased Mexican Mafia Member 6." Details within the indictment and testimony at Chavez's trial make clear the victim is Frank Munoz, a Mexican Mafia member nicknamed "Little Man."

 

Chavez's attorney, Meghan Blanco, said she would ask a judge to dismiss the new indictment, which she called "a crazy, last-minute move on the government's part."

Blanco said after prosecutors failed to get a guilty verdict with witnesses "whose information is clearly false," they recruited new informants who are "worse liars than the first batch." Chavez denies having any role in the conspiracy to kill Munoz and would push for a trial this summer, she said.

Released from federal prison in 2013 after serving 23 years for bank robbery, Munoz returned to his old neighborhood on the west side of Wilmington to find it claimed by Mexican Mafia members held in the state prison system, a witness testified at Chavez's trial.

"Sleepy and Tonito were old members," the witness told the jury, referring to Gabriel "Sleepy" Huerta and Emiliano "Tonito" Lopez, who were both serving life terms for murder. "They've been controlling Wilmington for over a decade."

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