by Adrian Lopez and Grace Jung
Trial Begins for Young Man Accused of Assault in Juvenile Hall
By Adrian Lopez
Defendant Isaiah Antonio Muñoz is charged with felony assault by force and criminal street gang activity in a trial with testimony that began in Department 11 of the Yolo County Superior Court on May 7, 2019, with the Honorable Timothy L. Fall presiding.
Mr. Muñoz is allegedly part of the Norteño criminal street gang, which has a presence in Yolo County and particularly Woodland.
Allegedly, while in custody in juvenile hall on June 14, 2018, Mr. Muñoz assaulted another youth. A counselor at the juvenile hall testified that he was escorting Mr. Muñoz to the recreational area of the facility when Muñoz allegedly tried to strike another youth who was sitting at a table. When Mr. Muñoz attempted to strike, the counselor restrained him and threw him to the ground before the youth could make physical contact with the other youth.
The counselor testified that the youth Mr. Muñoz tried to strike is allegedly part of the Sureño criminal street gang, a rival of the Norteño street gang which Muñoz is alleged to be affiliated with. The counselor testified that, while youth from rival gangs are normally separated from each other, incidents can and do occur.
Video surveillance from the day of the incident was played for the court, and it appeared that, although Mr. Muñoz did try to strike another youth, no physical contact was made and the incident lasted less than a minute.
However, the counselor continued in his testimony that Mr. Muñoz, while attempting to strike the other youth, made a remark that the other youth had said something about a deceased friend of Muñoz, implying that the altercation was possibly personal and not gang-related. The counselor, finishing his testimony, testified that, to his knowledge, there were no further incidents of any kind between Mr. Muñoz and the youth he tried to strike during their time in juvenile hall.
Yolo County Deputy Sheriff John Ney was the next to testify. With 23 years of experience and an expert on criminal street gangs, Mr. Ney testified on the background of the Norteño and Sureño street gangs.
He first testified that the youth that Mr. Muñoz attempted to strike fit the criteria for being a part of a criminal street gang organization – wearing gang colors, participating in gang criminal activity, and associating with known gang members in Yolo County.
He continued by explaining that, “on the streets,” if members of rival gangs were to come into contact with each other, they were bound by code and gang “rules” to assault each other. Interestingly, he testified that there are some exceptions to this, one being the presence of children in the area.
However, Deputy Ney testified that the rules change when persons are in a custodial setting, as heightened surveillance and the presence of authorities makes assaulting on sight impractical or too costly to provide much benefit.
Ney testified that, barring some specific reason to attack a rival gang member, rival gangs for the most part “co-exist” with each other, at least when incarcerated or in custodial settings (like a juvenile hall).
Dep. Ney, finishing his testimony, stated that should some specific reason prompt an altercation between members of rival gangs, there would usually be no follow-up incidents or retribution, with the members of the rival gangs “clearing the slate” with each other after altercations.
Two Defense Witnesses Testify in Felony Street Gang Trial
By Grace Jung
“Rest in Piss.” These were the three words that a Sureño gang member posted on his social media, blatantly showing his disrespect to his rival gang, the Norteños. A jury trial for Isaiah Antonio Muñoz re-convened this afternoon with two witnesses who testified to shed more light on gang criminal activity.
The prosecution called the first witness, Dr. Jaron Ross, to the stand and asked questions to establish his credibility as a physician. He is currently an emergency room medical doctor at Woodland Memorial Hospital.
To provide insight on how Muñoz, an alleged Norteño member, attempted to strike Martin Bermudez, an identified Sureño member, Dr. Ross described how different types of forces can cause great bodily harm. He stated that the use of fists and hands can cause significant head trauma and that any blow to the head has the potential to kill any one person.
Subsequently, Detective Pablo Gonzales with the Woodland Police Department was called by the prosecution to provide further background on the two prevalent gangs, specifically diving deeper into the Norteño subset, VBN (Varrio Bosque Norteño). He is currently assigned to the street response team that focuses on gang crime and violent crime, and tracks the local trends of gang members in the jurisdiction.
With two previous years of experience in the gang task force and in his fourth year as a detective investigating gang crimes, Detective Gonzales has had contact with the Norteño and Sureño street gangs in the past, engaging in conversations about gang tattoos, rivalry, graffiti, and loyalty.
The historical territory of VBN has been the “four corners area,” but Gonzales considers Woodland to be the ideal turf, also spreading to outlying cities in the Sacramento region. Red is the color associated with the Norteño gang and they adopted the traditional symbol “14” which stands for the fourteenth letter of the alphabet (N) and can be identified through clothing, tattoos, and hand signals. Other notable symbols include the huelga bird and, more recently, they adopted the Boston Red Sox “B” and its logo.
It is important to note that not every active participant of VBN can make hand signals, because attaining a seat in VBN requires prospective members to first climb a ladder, proving themselves by aligning to the values and systems of the gang. Historically, people were jumped in or inducted through familial ties in order to get into the gang, but nowadays one must commit crimes, burglaries, robberies, and confront rivals to explicitly show that they are “putting in work.”
What are some incentives to confront a gang rival?
According to Detective Gonzales, gang members are taught to display strength and expected to confront rivals “in a physical nature.” This is a crucial value that gang members strive to uphold because it gives them more power and ease when it comes to conducting criminal activities.
The confrontation of rivals was an influential topic during the trial, as there is a high expectation that gang members will confront their rivals.
There are also consequences for failing to confront gang members. The extent of the consequences can vary, depending on whether it was an order from a higher ranking gang member versus a random encounter between rival gang members.
Detective Gonzales proceeded to describe the role of social media in the gang context, and identifying gang activity by looking at all aspects of social media platforms. Social media is used frequently by one gang to disrespect another. When there is an expectation to confront, the failure to do so can be a sign of weakness.
Furthermore, gang members who cooperate with law enforcement are labeled as “snitches” and this is a degrading identity that can lead to removal from the gang and, more often, death. Isaiah Muñoz and Trevor Wright were associated with the VBN street gang. Wright has several younger siblings, one being currently in juvenile detention. That sibling meets the criteria for the Norteño gang but is not an official member of the VBN.
Wright is an active member, although he is currently in “bad standing” and Detective Gonzales noted that there is a possibility that he dropped out due to cooperating with law enforcement on a murder case.
Wright and Muñoz’s friendship has been strained, and Wright’s “bad standing” in the gang has affected Muñoz’s own standing in the gang. Vandalism has allegedly been occurring at his residence as “anytime a sibling is labeled as a snitch, it casts a shadow on the rest of the family.”
Martin Bermudez, a Sureño member affiliated with the ES13 gang (Eastside Trece), apparently disrespected a deceased friend of Muñoz’s by posting the phrase “Rest in Piss” on his Facebook page.
This palpable act of disrespect to the deceased and to the VBN entity represents the repercussions that may arise, such as confrontation.
Detective Gonzales further mentioned that gang subculture is an organization – with structure, respect level, and hierarchy. It’s not a mere market for transaction of goods, but a place of fear and intimidation. Confronting a rival gang member benefits the gang itself by elevating status, but many gang members face incentives such as fear of their own family members being dealt with as a result of their actions.
As a gang member, there are certain values ingrained in one so the actions that one carries out is a lifestyle, rather than a perfectly coordinated move. Members are aware that physical confrontation is favored in the gang.
The testimony came to an end, with no further witnesses for the day, but the trial is scheduled to reconvene tomorrow morning at 9 am.