Shortly after midnight on Easter Sunday of 2006, in a working class West Side neighborhood, the bloody feud between members of the Seventh and 10th Street gangs spilled over into the world of two innocent bystanders.
Sixteen-year old Brandon McDonald didn’t know gang members were waiting nearby, armed with guns and eager to retaliate for the murder of one of their own, when he showed up on his bike to visit with friends.
Neither did Darinell Young, who was walking back from a corner store with snacks for his pregnant girlfriend.
Eight years later, the mass shooting and stray gunfire that left Young and McDonald dead and wounded four others on Pennsylvania Avenue is being relived as part of one of the biggest organized crime trials in years.
“Before they knew it, they were running for their lives,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph M. Tripi told a federal court jury Friday. “They were ambushed under a hail of gunfire.”
In a downtown Buffalo courtroom, four accused members of the 10th Street Gang are facing murder, conspiracy and drug charges as part of a prosecution that many credit with dismantling a group that terrorized the lower West Side for nearly a decade.
Five murders, including the slayings of Young and McDonald, are at the heart of the 10th Street case.
It’s a prosecution that involves an unusually large number of defendants – 40 of the 44 accused gang members and associates have been convicted – and the allegation that the accused acted collectively, as part of a criminal enterprise.
To hear Tripi talk, it was an organization that grew from only 20 members to more than 100 at the height of its activity.
“Everyone played a part,” he told the jury, “and there was strength in numbers.”
As the trial moves forward, the defense is almost certain to challenge the government’s key witnesses, many of them 10th Street members convicted of violent crimes and now cooperating with prosecutors.
Those witnesses will include Kyle Eagen, a gang member reportedly involved in 10 separate shootings and one murder.
Eagen pleaded guilty to killing Omar Fraticello-Lugo, a 16-year-old member of a rival gang, on Busti Avenue in 2008.
“They are looking for an opportunity to not spend the rest of their life in jail,” said Scott M. Green, a lawyer for defendant Jonathan Delgado, of the witnesses.
Matthew R. Lembke, a lawyer for defendant Domenico Anastasio, compared his client to a lion and the former gang members who will testify to a pack of hyenas ready to attack its prey.
“It was all around him, but he resisted it,” Lembke said of the gang life that surrounded his client. “Now the hyenas are going to take the witness stand and try to prey on Dom again.”
Prosecutors say most of the gang’s violent acts were directed at rival Seventh Street Gang members but, on April 17, 2006, two innocent victims got caught in the middle of the bloody turf war.
McDonald was sitting on his bike, talking with friends when the shooting broke out, believed to be in retaliation for the killing of Delgado’s younger brother.
Tripi, at one point Friday, pointed to Delgado in the courtroom and identified him as one of the shooters that night in 2006. He also accused Delgado, who was 17 at the time, of firing the gun that killed McDonald.
“He was found alone in the back corner of a yard on the cold concrete slab where he died,” Tripi said of the slain teen.
Young, 45, who lived next door, was caught in the stray gunfire while returning home from the store.
Their murders are just two of many violent acts, including three other homicides, that investigators have linked to the 10th Street Gang.
The federal indictment charging the defendants ties the gang to the murder of Fraticello-Lugo and the 2009 killings of Christian Portes on Whitney Place and Anthony “Ace” Colon on Ullman Street in Riverside.
Saul Santana, a 10th Street member, has pleaded guilty to murder for his role in the Colon killing, and another gang member, Miguel Moscoso, has admitted playing a role in the Portes killing.
Defense lawyers for Delgado and the others are expected to argue that the gang members’ admissions of guilt now put them in the enviable position of offering to testify in return for leniency.
“The government is going to rely on individuals who have an interest in this case,” Maurice J. Verrillo, an attorney for defendant Ismael Lopez, told the jury Friday.
The fourth defendant, Matthew Smith, is being represented by Buffalo lawyer Terry Granger.
Since the case began, Granger and the other defense lawyers have challenged the statements, confessions and other evidence gathered as part of a three-year investigation by the FBI’s Safe Streets Task Force, a coalition that includes investigators from the State Police and Buffalo Police Department.
They also dispute the notion that the 10th Street Gang was a criminal enterprise that committed crimes to further the enterprise, an allegation the government needs to prove in order to prosecute gang members under the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations law.
The RICO charges are central to the prosecution’s overall case and are crucial to turning what could be nominal prison sentences for selling drugs into significantly longer sentences.
Originally used to go after the Mafia in the 1970s, the RICO law is now being used by federal prosecutors to dismantle violent street gangs.
Formed in the late 1980s, the 10th Street Gang dominated the West Side neighborhood bounded by Niagara Street on the west, Richmond Avenue on the east, Auburn Avenue on the north and Carolina Street on the south.
Gang members were known for “tagging” buildings and signs with graffiti to demonstrate their control of the neighborhood. They also were known for wearing plain white T-shirts and tattoos with “MOB” or “10” in the design.