The final bail hearing for Alex Sanchez began around 1:40 p.m. on Monday, October 18.
Every bench in courtroom on the second floor of the federal court on Spring Street was packed to the point of slight discomfort for the audience, with several reasonably prominent people turned away altogether because they came too late.
After Judge Manual L. Real opened the proceedings, he told Sanchez’s attorney, Kerry Bensinger, to speak first. Bensinger is a tall, fit, affable, very smart man and a skilled researcher who is court appointed, but has spent an astonishing amount of time on this case already.* His courtroom manner, however, while calm and intelligent, has thus far lacked the aggressiveness that he and his client may need.
And then there is U.S. District Court Judge Manual Real. Appointed in 1966 by Lyndon Johnson, at 85, Judge Real is what we used to call a character. He has spent 43 years on the same bench and projects an image that combines the demeanor of an irascible uncle who mutters loudly and tyrannically over his soup at Thanksgiving dinner, with that of a glowering bird of prey.
Bensinger told the judge that he would like to call to the stand Father Greg Boyle. The intention was to have the priest (who is frequently called as an expert witness in both state and federal trials) talk about the elements of the four wiretap conversations central to the prosecution’s case that he noted were discrepant from what the feds had said was on the recordings. Most importantly, Boyle would speak about the crucial section about Sanchez no longer being an active gang member that the prosecution had conveniently omitted from their filing. [Details here.]
It promised to be an interesting testimony.
On the way to the hearing I spoke to Greg about the four recordings and asked him if there was anything in the conversations that he thought was incriminating. “All the time I was listening, I kept bracing myself,” he said. “But it never came. There really isn’t anything.”
In an earlier hearing, the prosecution had called their own expert witness—LAPD detective Frank Flores—to characterize what was on the recordings. Attorneys in the audience assumed that Judge Real would permit Greg to take the stand in order to level the playing field.
Attorneys in the audience were wrong.
He did not need to hear from Father Greg, Judge Real shouted. (And when I say shouted, I am not being hyperbolic.) “It is not his interpretation that is important! It is that of the court!”
Bensinger tried to explain about the importance of the missing section that he said directly disputed the prosecution’s claim that Sanchez was an active gang member and a shot caller. But Judge Real was no longer listening. “That’s a matter for trial! Tri-al, counselor, don’t you understand?!”
Bensinger said he had another witness he intended to call, a woman who runs a prominent gang tattoo removal agency in LA County. Bensinger wanted her to rebut the prosecution’s earlier contention that, although Sanchez had all his visible gang tattoos removed, the fact that he still had one left on his chest proved that he was still an active gang member.
Real shouted down that idea too.
“She’s not competent to say anything one way or the other!” he roared.
The only thing that Judge Real would allow from Bensinger’s prepared presentation, was the cross examination of Det. Frank Flores. This basically meant that the prosecution was able to present a witness and multiple pieces of evidence–exhibits— to “prove” why Sanchez was an active gangster and flight risk, while the defense was allowed no countering witnesses, and no countering exhibits.
With a sigh, Bensinger proceeded.
Bensinger asked Detective Flores why he didn’t include the missing material about Sanchez not being an active gang member in his own court filing. [See previous post for details] Flores said he didn’t think it was important. Kerry pressed that point and Flores said that Camaron—the nickname of the now-dead El Salvadoran MS-13 gangster who made the remarks —was speaking “tongue in cheek.”
At this, there was audible muttering from the crowd. “So Cameron was a post modern gangster who was speaking ironically?” someone near to me whispered.
It was Bensinger’s contention that Sanchez threatened no one, and ordered no hits. To the contrary, said Bensinger, Sanchez was on the four calls in question to try to diffuse a situation in which several people—Sanchez prominently included—had been accused of being FBI informants. Because of this accusation, a Salvadoran gangtser with the nickname Cameron had caused a “green light” to be put on Sanchez and others. In other words, Cameron had ordered a hit on a number of people, including Sanchez. And Sanchez was trying use his contacts and personal influence to defuse what had become a volatile situation.
The issue of the FBI informant rumor and the “green light” are not in depute. What is in dispute and, based on the transcripts, open to interpretation, is what Alex Sanchez did about the threat.
One of the issues that Bensinger brought up during the cross examination was his contention that Flores completely and crucially misidentified a person on one of the calls, a guy with the street name of Zombie. According to Flores, the person, “Zombie,” on the phone call was also the person who was eventually arrested for the murder of Cameron, a murder that Sanchez had allegedly ordered during the last of the four phone calls that are the center of the prosecution’s case.
Yet, according to Bensinger, the guy called “Zombie” on the call was a very different fellow from Juan Bonilla, the killer, who is also called Zombie.
(I know this nickname business is dizzying, but try to stay with me here.)
Evidently there are a number of Zombies in and around the local MS-13 cliques—which is common in gangs. There might be a guy with the nickname of Zombie. But there may also be Lil’ Zombie…..Big Zombie….and heaven knows what other permutation of the nickname Zombie (or Sleepy or Dreamer or P’Nut or Snyper or Loco or…..you get the picture).
Anyway it seems that Bensinger’s Zombie (whom we’ll randomly designate as Zombie 2) dropped a whole lot of identifiers during the course of the long conversation, like references to several family members and—helpfully—his actual name.
With the tiniest amount of police work Flores could have verified which Zombie he had on this call—since it was so important to his case.
When asked if he did any of that follow-up investigation, Flores admitted that he had not. When Bensinger asked why, Flores said that he didn’t need to do any further checking because he knew it was Zombie/Juan on the call. (The exchange between Flores and Bensinger was longer than I am portraying here.) And how did the detective know he had the right Zombie in the face of fairly convincing evidence to the contrary? Flores did not elucidate.
However, what Flores did say is that Zombie/Juan was one of the feds’ informants, that after he was arrested for Cameron’s murder, he began singing like a bird and not only confessed to the killing himself, he also fingered Alex Sanchez and said that Sanchez told him on the phone to kill Cameron.
I am not privy to the prosecution’s whole case, but I gathered that since the Feds are basing the bulk of their charges on the four wiretap conversations, it is crucial that they place Zombie/Juan on one of those calls. If Zombie/Juan is not on the fourth call when Cameron’s death is supposedly ordered (in verbiage that is ambiguous at best), then the admitted murderer’s insistence that Sanchez was the shot caller who directed him to do the hit, starts to suggest either mendacity or coercion or both.
Bensinger also had a declaration by the sister of Zombie 2—the not Juan Zombie. The sister was prepared to say in court that it was indeed the voice of her brother on the call, not the guy that Flores and the feds insisted was on the call, and who would later kill Cameron.
But Judge Real was not interested. “It is irrelevant who Alex Sanchez talked to on these calls!” he shouted at Bensinger.
Repeatedly through the proceedings Judge Real leaned toward the attorney and the audience to shout, “I will decide what is important!”
He did not actually yell, “I am the decider!” But he came very close.
After a rather battered Bensinger sat down, the prosecutor got up. It was not the previous prosecutor, Elizabeth Carpenter, but a woman who appeared to be more experienced and more in possession of some kind of gravitas than Carpenter, who was still present, but sidelined.
The new prosecutor summarized the government’s previous arguments: Sanchez was leading a double life. Sanchez was a flight risk. Sanchez was danger to the community and would think nothing of having people killed who threatened him. She quoted the phrase from the four phone calls that was considered to be the most damning: “He said, ‘We have said it. We will go to war.’ And one week later, [Cameron] was dead,” she said.
The prosecutor added that the amount of support Sanchez had received from friends and community members “makes him uniquely suited to flee the jurisdiction.”
More muttering from the audience.
Whether or not this meant that the government’s attorneys believed that people like Reverend Cecil Murray, former pastor of the First AME Church, and former California Senator Tom Hayden were going to form some sort of underground railroad to spirit Sanchez out of the country was not made clear.
When she sat down, Bensinger again stood and started to counter the prosecutor’s allegations. There had been more than 120 letters of support from people ranging from academics to clergy to city leaders, he said, and $2.5 million in surities and property put up by friends and community members to guarantee Sanchez’s bail, as he had no assets of his own….he was devoted to his family….he had ties to the community… And so on.
He did not get very far before Judge Real interrupted.
“Mr. Kensinger!” (For the duration of the hearing Judge Real conflated the attorney’s first and last names into the Brangelina combo of “Kensinger.”) “Mr. Sanchez has not met the burden of proving he is not a danger…”
Bensinger appeared to be on the verge of pointing out that he had not, in fact, been allowed to present any evidence to that effect, but thought better of it.
“Out of all those letters of support,” continued Judge Real, “no one approached it from the angle that Mr. Sanchez will appear. I read them all and I didn’t notice that anywhere.”
Since this was patently and demonstratively false, Bensinger bounced out of his seat to protest. The lawyer began to cite specific letters including a letter from Tom Parker, a retired FBI agent who used to be the assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Bureau. In this letter, which was read aloud at an earlier hearing, Parker said something to the effect he would personally guarantee that Sanchez would appear in court.
But Judge Real waved away Bensinger’s words like so many pesky flies. “I studied all the manuscripts and the letters,” he said.
And with that Judge Manual Real announced there would be no bail.
“He reminds me of Julius Hoffman,” said Tom Hayden grimly as he walked to the door—making reference to the infamous jurist, U.S. District Judge Julius Hoffman, who—exactly 40 years ago— oversaw Hayden’s own trial when he was a young man and a member of the so-called Chicago Seven.
There had been a rally in the park across from the court before the hearing, and there was a rally afterward that included a small gaggle of news cameras.
I sat with two of Sanchez’s children away from the commotion. Sanchez has a 15-year-old son, who is also named Alex, and a 13-year-old named Marlon. Nearby was their cousin, Vanessa, also 13.
I asked the boys if they’d been able to see their dad much. ” Pretty much, which is good,” said Alex Jr, who was doing his best to be upbeat and mature. Marlon the 13-year-old also tried to be upbeat for a minute, then lowered his head and began to cry quietly.
On the way home from the hearing, I exchanged calls and messages with others who had been there. Some veteran prosecutors and investigators who had been watching the case with interest from the sidelines described the proceedings as ‘extraordinary.’ ”
The next step will be trial. No dates have as yet been set.
*I mistakenly wrote that Kerry Bensinger is working probono for Alex Sanchez, but he is court appointed.