Murder-for-hire plot sentences too light, intended victim says
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10:00 PM PDT on Wednesday, August 6, 2008
By JOHN F. BERRY
SAN BERNARDINO - The target of a 2006 murder-for-hire scheme in court today will say the people convicted of plotting to kill him are getting off too easy.
The schemers include a man identified by authorities as a top Mexican Mafia drug leader and two San Manuel tribal members.
Attorney Frank Peterson said Wednesday that he will read a victim-impact statement from his client, Leonard Epps. Epps won't appear in San Bernardino County Superior Court because he is traveling and still fears for his life, Peterson said.
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"He hit the roof," Peterson said of Epps' reaction to the April 17 plea agreement. "He lambasted the district attorney who made the deal."
Today's statement is the first time Epps has spoken publicly.
"These people are being considered for short-term sentences, using house arrest and probation," Epps wrote. "Wow, to think that it is okay to seek out the services of death through murder-for-hire and get a pass on liability."
On Sept. 30, 2006, local and federal law enforcement agents informed Epps, then the manager of a Highland bar called The Brass Key, that he was the target of a murder plot, court records say.
Epps said he thought the plot stemmed from the perception that he had witnessed the non-fatal shooting of his college friend James Seay outside the bar on May 17, 2004.
San Manuel tribal member Robert Vincent Martinez III was charged in the shooting, but the charges later were dismissed, court records show.
Two years later, Seay was shot to death outside his mother's San Bernardino home, after he had received a $500,000 settlement from Martinez. The homicide remains unsolved.
With the help of police, Epps faked his own death to throw off the schemers, court records state.
"I was told that in order to live, I would have to leave the state, not call my family and possibly pretend to be dead," Epps wrote in his victim-impact statement. "I used my savings to live day-to-day. I was told not to use my real name for employment."
The ruse included wrecking Epps' car and leaving it in the High Desert, Peterson said.
The pretense ended after the suspects were arrested Dec. 12, 2006, during an Inland Empire-wide law enforcement sweep attacking the methamphetamine trade. The suspects were charged with conspiracy to commit murder.
Nine people initially were charged in the plot against Epps. Four accepted plea agreements earlier. The remaining five accepted their pleas en masse on April 17.
Terms of Deals
The plea agreements emerged after five hours of intense negotiations in hallways and before Superior Court Judge Michael Dest.
Defense attorneys said the agreements were better than a trial, where their clients risked significantly longer sentences.
Salvador Orozco Hernandez, 43, identified in federal documents as a Mexican Mafia leader in the San Bernardino area, agreed to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to attempted murder and committing the crime to benefit a criminal street gang.
San Manuel tribal member Stacy Cheyenne Barajas-Nunez, 25, pleaded guilty to attempted murder and involvement in a criminal gang. She also pleaded guilty to transporting methamphetamine and possessing illegal substances in a jail.
Her brother, Erik Barajas, 35, pleaded guilty to assault with a firearm and gang membership.
Both tribal members are expected to be sentenced to probation that forbids any personal contact or money exchanges with gang members.
U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration records included in the case file show that Hernandez was collecting "taxes" from Inland Hispanic gangs and making a methamphetamine deal at the San Manuel Indian Bingo & Casino.
Another DEA document said investigators fear the Mexican Mafia has infiltrated the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians and is extorting money from tribe members, who receive at least $100,000 per month each from casino profits.
The other two charged in the case who accepted deals in April are Janette Amaya, 51, and Alfred Orozco Hernandez, 39, the brother of Salvador Hernandez.
Alfred Hernandez pleaded guilty to attempted murder and involvement with a criminal gang. He will be sentenced to nine years in prison.
Amaya pleaded guilty to one charge of transporting methamphetamine and admitted criminal gang membership. She pleaded no contest to a forgery charge in a separate case.
She will be sentenced to probation.
On Wednesday, Deputy District Attorney Doug Poston said he does not expect the judge to reject the April 17 plea agreements, as Epps would like.
But pre-sentencing investigations by the county's Probation Department could unearth new information, Poston said.
Poston said he spoke with Epps about his concerns the day after the plea deals were struck. The prosecutor said authorities could have better addressed his worries if Epps had been more cooperative.
"Instead of talking with me in a civil manner, he chose to go through his attorney," Poston said.
"It's unfortunate, because it leaves me not as prepared to go through with sentencing."
The Press Enterprise identified the witness publicly in this case as Leonard Epps but they didn't tell you all there is to know about Leonard. The Epps family includes San Bernardino's first black police officer Johnnie Epps. Not to mention the fact that Leonard himself was involved in the fatal shooting of a man who broke into his parents westside home some years ago. Now we find him running for his life from a plot to kill him authored by the Mexican Mafia. Just goes to show all killers aren't cut from the same cloth.
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