SANTA ANA (CNS / FOX 11) - A federal judge told the man who headed the Orange County chapter of the Mexican Mafia for decades that "you need to lead a different life'' in ordering him Monday to spend 15 more years behind bars.
Peter "The Big Homie" Ojeda, 74, could have faced a life sentence for racketeering and criminal conspiracy to commit murder and assault with serious bodily injury, but U.S. District Judge James Selna gave the defendant a chance, however slight, at freedom in his late 80s.
Selna principally cited Ojeda's age as he countered the government's argument for a 17-year sentence. The judge said "humanitarian reasons'' prompted him to allow some measure of mercy to Ojeda, but, he added, "I don't wish to diminish the seriousness of the conduct here.''
Ojeda could have gotten out of prison sometime next year upon completing a 14-year sentence on a prior case had he not orchestrated more crimes while behind bars.
Selna asked the inmate where he wished to do his time, prompting an incredulous Ojeda, who mumbled to his attorney his surprise at getting a choice, to reply, "Somewhere in California.''
Selna said he would make a recommendation to the Bureau of Prisons, which has the final say.
Selna twice told Ojeda that as he serves this prison sentence, "you need to lead a different life'' behind bars.
"I understand that,'' Ojeda said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Joe McNally argued for a 17-year sentence primarily based on Ojeda's conviction for running the criminal organization while already in prison. McNally also said a co-defendant received a 204-month sentence.
McNally argued that it was important to send a stronger message of "deterrence'' to other gangsters. Also, Ojeda has shown he's dangerous even while in custody, the prosecutor said.
Selna said, "There is a chance, probably not a strong chance, that he serves out his term and (will) be released.''
But, the judge added that Ojeda "will be substantially diminished,'' making it tougher for him to exert control over the county's gangs.
Ojeda's attorney, Craig Wilke, argued for even less time, but Selna said the defendant exhibited "special cunning and danger'' by running the gang while behind bars.
Ojeda and his one-time girlfriend, Suzie Rodriguez, who will be sentenced in June, were found guilty Jan. 13 of racketeering, with findings of murder, extortion and narcotics trafficking.
Ojeda depended on "secretaries'' like Rodriguez who helped gang members communicate to their associates out of custody, McNally said.
"She became a facilitator, and that's how the Mexican Mafia operates,'' he said after the verdicts were handed down.
Wilke argued at trial that his client was just a poor old man in prison who couldn't have possibly run a criminal conspiracy from behind bars.
When Ojeda was sent to a penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, in 2006, he turned to some close associates for help running things while he was away, McNally said.
The Mexican Mafia is a "super gang'' that extorts about two dozen local street gangs to pay "taxes,'' or a cut of their ill-gained profits, but it also provides "protection'' for associates when they end up behind bars, McNally said. The Mexican Mafia also can help settle a beef, McNally said.
"Drug dealers can't call the police, so they call the Mexican Mafia,'' McNally told jurors.
There are more than 30,000 gang members under the Mexican Mafia umbrella in Southern California, McNally said. About 3,000 of them are in Orange County, he said.
Getting sent to Lewisburg "should have been the end of his criminal career,'' McNally said. Instead, Ojeda turned to Armando "Hard Times'' Moreno, who he met in April 2007 on his way to Pennsylvania in a San Bernardino detention center, McNally said.
Moreno, a gang member from Garden Grove, had a "stellar resume'' for the Mexican Mafia and was "on the cusp'' of being a "made'' member of the gang, meaning anyone else would have to get permission to "greenlight'' him for murder or place him on a list of associates who have run afoul of the rules and are targets for assault or death, McNally said.
When he was 18, Moreno was found guilty of a murder, but the conviction was reversed on appeal, and then he ended up back behind bars following a string of armed robberies, McNally said.
Ojeda also turned to Donald "Big Sluggo'' Aguilar, who was "like a brother'' to the mob boss, McNally said.
"Sluggo was the guy, the keyholder here in Orange County,'' McNally said.
Aguilar, in turn, tabbed Glenn "Tigre'' Navarro, who also had a "stellar Mexican Mafia resume,'' having "spent most of his life in prison,'' McNally said.
Rodriguez was instrumental in helping to keep open lines of communication between Ojeda and his gang, McNally said. Often, the two would talk in "coded'' language on the phone or in handwritten letters, the prosecutor said.
At some point, Moreno and Ojeda had a falling-out and a war broke out for control of the Orange County "branch'' of the Mexican Mafia, McNally said.
Ojeda ordered hits on anyone associated with Moreno, and Moreno countered with his own list targeting supporters of "The Old Man,'' McNally said.
Ojeda was losing ground in the war until he sent in reinforcements and ultimately prevailed, McNally said.
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