By Erin Sherbert
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Mike Levine is a former Drug Enforcement Administration supervisor who has overseen the handling of thousands of criminal informants. "All informants lie all the time," he says. "There are many cops and agents who shouldn't be allowed to handle an informant, because informants in inept, criminal, or careless hands become more of a danger to society than the crime they're going after."
Besides debriefing agents about the gang's exploits, Mickey was given a specific government mission: to tell gang members that his cousin's boss had an under-the-table business in Richmond buying and exporting stolen cars. The "boss" was actually an undercover California Highway Patrol officer, and the storefront was rigged with undercover cameras. Among his targets, Mickey homed in on Rodil Nochez, an old friend with whom he often shared weed and played videogames, and whose mother rented him a room. He walked into Nochez's bedroom one day when he was playing videogames with a friend, Daniel Gonzalez, and told them about his cousin's boss. (Mickey alleged that Nochez and Gonzalez were MS-13 associates, yet the government never charged them with conspiracy.)
"If an agent permits it, an informant will always target the people they have the least fear of," Levine says. "They pick the dumb, desperate, and gullible rather than the dangerous criminal who might seek revenge."
On several occasions, Nochez and Gonzalez asked Mickey to go along with them to steal cars. He did, and even acted as lookout while Gonzalez broke into a car. Nochez would wait in his own car and then drive Mickey back to San Francisco. Mickey sometimes accompanied the two men to deliver the cars to the undercover exporter, who'd pay $2,000 to $3,000 a car.
Mickey testified in the trial against Nochez last year that participating in the thefts was "part of my cover," and insists he told his handler, Merendino, and a federal prosecutor that he had done so in his debriefing sessions. Yet when Merendino took the stand, he claimed Mickey had never revealed that.
Judge William Alsup was troubled by the conflicting testimony: If the agents did know, "the government is out there knowingly perpetrating crimes on innocent civilians. On the other hand, if the government did not know, and Martinez is lying, the government is here asking this jury to return a verdict based on perjured testimony."
The government seems to have finally lost its patience with Mickey. In October 2007, he was arrested for allegedly stealing a minivan in San Mateo County. He listed Merendino as his emergency contact, but the agent didn't bail him out. In July 2008, federal authorities indicted Mickey for racketeering conspiracy with the gang, a charge punishable by life in prison. But prosecutors offered a plea: If Mickey would plead guilty and cooperate, the government would recommend a lighter sentence. He accepted.
Though Mickey is cooperating, it seems his testimony hasn't yet helped prosecutors much. After Nochez's attorney argued that the government's undercover operation was entrapment, the jury acquitted Nochez on all counts of attempting to export a stolen vehicle. The first trial in the indictment against the 20th Street Clique had gone south on the U.S. attorney's office.
It seems that besides being informants, Mickey and Bad Boy were still largely abiding by the gang's rules. Had they known the other was a snitch, David says, "They would have killed each other."
As the prosecution called Abraham Martinez to the witness stand in the first week of the trial this month, Operation Devil Horns' snitch irony came full circle. Abraham is the nephew of Mickey, whose snitching helped create this case. He is also the nephew of Snoopy, who demanded he kill Mickey for being a rat. Now, just as he claims he followed his uncles' footsteps into the gang life when he was 9, he is following his uncle into snitching on the gang to save his own skin.
Martinez isn't the only one to take the bait. At least another seven of the indicted gang members have been flipped and cued up as witnesses to rat out the others.
While Mickey came across as snide on the witness stand, Abraham was composed, straightforward, and, every once in a while, unintentionally funny. (Asked why he didn't ride the bus to attack gang members, he said, "Because the bus stops, like, every two blocks.") With the same monotone, street-inflected voice, he took the jurors, for five straight days of trial, into a scrappy, parallel reality to the Mission's hipster cafes, a world with its own lingo, clothes, rules, pecking order, and logic. He still referred to the gang as "we," and formed the entire MS-13 sign language alphabet, forgetting the Q ("You don't use it that much"). He identified dozens of photos of gang members by their nicknames, and lifted his shirt to show a "M" and "S" and "2" and "0" emblazoned on his muscle-ripped chest and arms.
Abraham, just 21, spoke matter-of-factly about his long rap sheet — caught with an ice pick at school at age 14 and box cutters at 15; arrested for possession of a firearm by 16. He led police on a high-speed chase from the Mission to Treasure Island, crashing into some cop cars, stopping only after police shot him. (He cut a bullet out of his arm in juvenile hall with a toothbrush he'd sharpened into a shank.) In 2008, he stabbed a man he thought was a Norteño in a car in the Mission.