A Latino gang member from Highland Park who spent more than 15 years on the run in connection with a racially motivated murder could be sentenced Monday to 20 years in federal prison if the judge is convinced that survivors and witnesses approve.
Merced “Shadow” Cambero, 39, pleaded guilty in February to felony counts of conspiracy against rights, interference with federally protected activities, and use or discharge of a firearm during a crime of violence causing death. The case against Cambero and his co-defendants marked the first time the federal hate crime statute had been used to combat racial violence by members of a street gang, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Cambero admitted he shot 38-year-old Kenneth Wilson, a black man who was looking for a parking space in Highland Park in April 1999, as part of a pact with other Avenues members to use violence, intimidation and harassment to force blacks out of the mostly Latino neighborhood.
Before he took the defendant’s plea on Feb. 16, U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson demanded Cambero state exactly why he murdered Wilson.
“Tell me in your own words what you did in April 1999,” the judge asked.
“I shot him,” Cambero replied, not expecting an interrogation.
“And why?” Anderson, who is himself black, continued.
“He was a different color,” the defendant responded, looking down.
“And that’s why you decided to shoot him?” the judge asked.
The plea hearing was delayed after Anderson called a recess to be sure that witnesses and relatives of the defendants’ victims were aware that a plea deal had been struck and that they had an opportunity to attend the hearing. The courtroom that day was empty aside from Cambero’s family members and a City News Service reporter.
“Don’t the victims have a right to be notified of the plea agreement — and don’t they have a right to be here?” the judge asked prosecutors. “And don’t they have a position on the plea agreement?”
Prosecutors promised they would find out if the victim’s family members had been notified. Hours later, Assistant U.S. Attorney Barbara Bernstein of the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division told the judge that family members of the victim had been contacted and they supported the plea agreement. Wilson’s relatives said they would attend the subsequent sentencing hearing, the prosecutor said.
According to his plea deal, Cambero can expect to be sentenced to 20 years behind bars, followed by a five-year term of what prosecutors called “particularly stringent” supervised release. However, Anderson made clear that he was not bound by the deal and could sentence Cambero to a term up to and including life behind bars.
“At sentencing, the court will make a determination whether it will accept the plea agreement,” Anderson said, adding that if he does not approve the deal, he will give Cambero a chance to withdraw his guilty plea or go forward with sentencing.
If sentencing does take place Monday, Anderson said he might impose “a greater length of time than is indicated in the agreement.”
Cambero was taken into custody by Mexican authorities in Baja California and turned over to the FBI at the border last year. He was one of three shooters who gunned down Wilson, who died of a gunshot wound to the neck, court papers show.
Cambero is a member of the Avenues gang, which waged a campaign of terror against blacks in Highland Park.
In 2006, three fellow members of the Avenues gang were sentenced to life in federal prison as part of the six-year conspiracy that also saw another black man gunned down at a bus stop in December 2000. A fourth man was convicted as a lookout in that 2000 slaying of Christopher Bowser.
In its sentencing position, the government said it recognizes that the crimes in the case are “among the most serious in the penal code, and that, if there were no other factors to take into consideration, imprisonment for life would be a just punishment.”
However, “based on a number of powerful considerations — including the desire of almost every witness and victim to avoid the terrifying prospect of again having to testify about violent gang activity; evidentiary concerns raised by the fact that the evidence is now 20 years old; and the desire of the victims, witnesses, and government for definite and final justice — the prosecution entered into plea negotiations to determine if a just resolution could be reached without the need for another trial.”
Bernstein wrote that Cambero’s plea agreement would subject him to five years of “particularly stringent supervised release that includes, among other conditions, a requirement that the defendant submit, at any time of the day or night by any law enforcement or probation officer, to warrantless and suspicion-less searches of his person, property, residence, vehicles, papers, computers, and phones.”
That provision will allow for close monitoring of Cambero and would “help ensure that if he violates any law or any term of his supervised provision, his release can be revoked and he can be returned to prison,” Bernstein wrote in the document.
In a hand-scrawled letter to the judge, Cambero apologized “to everyone in Highland Park for all the hurt I caused as a member of the Avenues gang.” He wrote that he often thinks of the now-deceased mother “of the man, Mr. Wilson, that I killed on Avenue 52 that night 20 years ago.”