Peter Ojeda
Peter Ojeda

The head of the Orange County branch of the Mexican Mafia and his one-time girlfriend were convicted Wednesday of racketeering and criminal conspiracy to commit murder and assault with serious bodily injury.

Jurors deliberated for about 2 1/2 days before finding Peter Ojeda and Suzie Rodriguez guilty of racketeering with findings of murder, extortion and narcotics trafficking.

Sentencing is set for May 9. Both face life sentences, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Joe McNally.

Rodriguez, who was out of custody on bond, was ordered to jail by U.S. District Judge James Selna.

The 73-year-old Ojeda, who had been serving a 14-year federal prison term for racketeering, would have been eligible to be released this year or next if he had stayed out of trouble, McNally said after the verdicts were read.

The verdicts “send a strong deterrent message” to gangs, the prosecutor said.

Ojeda depended on “secretaries” like Rodriguez who helped gang members communicate to their associates out of custody, McNally said.

“She became a facilitator, and that’s how the Mexican Mafia operates,” he said.

Rodriguez had been set to accept a plea deal that was contingent on all of the defendants, including Ojeda, going through with plea bargains, according to her attorney, Karren Kenney. The proposed plea deal called for six months of home confinement and six months in a halfway house, the lawyer said.

McNally praised Santa Ana police and the FBI for making the case possible.

Santa Ana Officer Gonzo Gallardo, who led the charge against Ojeda in both cases, said it was a “team effort” and that the verdicts were “a long time coming.”

The case was primarily built on the testimony of informants, a legal tactic that has brought Orange County’s district attorney and sheriff under fire from defense attorneys who argue the snitches have violated the constitutional rights of some defendants.

U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesman Thom Mrozek, however, said the Ojeda trial shows the use of informants.

“As seen by today’s jury verdicts, the use of cooperating witnesses is an important tool when investigating and prosecuting secretive organizations such as the Mexican Mafia,” Mrozek said. “Information from cooperating witnesses is used to shed light on the clandestine operations of criminal organizations, and this information is often simply not available through other investigative techniques.

“In this case, the jury heard from several cooperating defendants, who discussed their roles in the organization and provided valuable evidence,” he said. “Their testimony was subject to cross-examination by defense attorneys and was evaluated by the jury that returned the guilty verdicts.”

Kenney characterized her client as a person who has trouble saying no and wants to help others. The attorney said she has a “laundry list of issues” she’ll raise on appeal.

“She’s just the type of person not to turn her back on anyone,” Kenney said. “That’s why she was in this situation in the first place.”

Ojeda’s attorney, Craig Wilke, argued that his client was just a poor old man in prison who couldn’t have possibly run a criminal conspiracy from behind bars.

When Ojeda was sent to the penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, in 2006, he turned to some close associates for help running things while he was away, McNally said.

The Mexican Mafia is a “super gang” that extorts about 24 local street gangs to pay “taxes,” or a cut of their ill-gained profits, but it also provides “protection” for associates when they end up behind bars, McNally said. The Mexican Mafia also can help settle a beef, McNally said.

“Drug dealers can’t call the police, so they call the Mexican Mafia,” McNally said in his opening statement of the trial.

There are more than 30,000 gang members under the Mexican Mafia umbrella in Southern California, McNally said. About 3,000 of them are in Orange County, he sad.

Getting sent to Lewisburg “should have been the end of his criminal career,” McNally said. Instead, Ojeda turned to Armando “Hard Times” Moreno, who he met in April 2007 on his way to Pennsylvania in a San Bernardino detention center, McNally said.

Moreno, a gang member from Garden Grove, had a “stellar resume” for the Mexican Mafia and was “on the cusp” of being a “made” member of the gang, meaning anyone else would have to get permission to “greenlight” him for murder or place him on a “hard candy” list of associates who have run afoul of the rules and are targets for assault or death, McNally said.

When he was 18, Moreno was found guilty of a murder, but the conviction was reversed on appeal, and then he ended up back behind bars following a string of armed robberies, McNally said.

Ojeda also turned to Donald “Big Sluggo” Aguilar, who was “like a brother” to the mob boss, McNally said.

“Sluggo was the guy, the keyholder here in Orange County,” McNally said.

Aguilar, in turn, tabbed Glenn “Tigre” Navarro, who also had a “stellar Mexican Mafia resume,” having “spent most of his life in prison,” McNally said.

Rodriguez was instrumental in helping to keep open lines of communication between Ojeda and his gang, McNally said. Often, the two would talk in “coded” language on the phone or in handwritten letters, the prosecutor said. Some inmates even put “kites,” or messages, in their rectum to sneak them past guards, McNally said.

At some point, Moreno and Ojeda had a falling-out and a war broke out for control of the Orange County “branch” of the Mexican Mafia, McNally said.

Ojeda ordered hits on anyone associated with Moreno, and Moreno countered with his own “hard candy” list targeting supporters of “The Old Man,” McNally said.

Ojeda was losing ground in the war until he sent in reinforcements and ultimately prevailed, McNally said.

Ojeda’s attorney, Craig Wilke, denied the prosecution’s allegations.

“For the past 10 years, Peter Ojeda has been in the custody of the U.S. Marshal and the marshal has Mr. Ojeda isolated,” Wilke said. “Since 2005, law enforcement has been listening to every phone call Mr. Ojeda makes, reading every letter he writes or receives and monitors every visitors he receives.”

If what the prosecution claimed was true, the authorities “would have to be completely incompetent,” Wilke said.

Ojeda does not run the local Mexican Mafia anymore, but his name still has some cachet, Wilke said. Other gang members use Ojeda as a “shield” or a “sword” to suit their purposes, he said.

Kenney said her client had a reputation as a “helper,” so her “abusive” husband, who was a Mexican Mafia street gang member, would seek her out to find out why he ended up on a “hard candy” list.

Rodriguez took in Ojeda’s ailing younger brother, Eddie, when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Kenney said. Ojeda was grateful and the two found their friendship becoming romantic, Kenney said.

Ojeda was kind to her and helped “build her up,” something she was unused to in her troubled marriage, Kenney said.

— Wire reports 

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