Suspected gang members at Federal Court in Charlotte
The criminal reach of what prosecutors describe as a notorious East Coast gang will be on display this week in a Charlotte federal courtroom.
Starting Wednesday, according to court documents, two of the highest-ranking leaders of United Blood Nation will go on trial, accused of running an organized-crime network with extensive ties to the Carolinas — from their prison cells in New York state.
The defendants include Pedro Gutierrez, who prosecutors say is the "godfather" or "chairman" of the 15,000-member gang. The New Yorker, who goes by the UBN nicknames of "Magoo," "Inferno" and "Light," has been held in an undisclosed North Carolina location for the past year.
Sitting beside him in the coming weeks will be James Baxton, described in court documents as one of Gutierrez' top lieutenants. He's known in gang circles as "Frank White" or "Grown."
The pair will be joined at the defense table by a North Carolinian. Prosecutors say Cynthia “Lady Bynt” Gilmore of Raleigh made regular trips to the New York prisons to discuss business with the UBN bosses, delivering directives for an array of crimes.
All three are cited frequently in a 133-page federal indictment in 2017 that led to the arrests of 83 reputed UBN members across Charlotte, the Carolinas and states stretching from Florida to New York.
The federal complaint, which covers alleged criminal activity stretching back a decade, says the gang was responsible for at least six killings, a sprawling narcotics and illegal weapons trade, along with bank fraud and other white-collar crimes — all in violation of the federal organized-crime statute known as the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act, or RICO.
That the indictment says several of the gang's top leaders remain in maximum-security prisons but still signed off on most major gang operations illustrates the difficulty authorities have had suppressing the ring.
UBN is now the largest gang in North Carolina. According to a government filing in the Gutierrez case, federal prosecutors plan to call a N.C. Department of Correction officer to testify about UBN's footprint in the state's prisons and the influence the gang has over inmates and guards.
The 2017 indictment details a flow of UBN contraband streaming into Pasquotank Correctional Institution in Elizabeth City.
The indictment says Gutierrez and Baxton met regularly with North Carolina visitors at Wende Correctional Facility in New York state, where Gutierrez was serving a sentence for second-degree murder.
Gang members also funneled an unspecified amount of monetary dues to Gutierrez, Baxton and fellow top lieutenant Omari "Uno B" Rosero, who were all imprisoned at the time.
Rosero has pleaded guilty to a criminal conspiracy charge connected to the case.
If convicted of racketeering conspiracy, Gutierrez, Baxton and Gilmore face prison sentences of 20 years to life and $250,000 fines. Gutierrez' attorney, Brett Wentz of Wilmington, declined comment Tuesday. Baxton's attorney, Matt Joseph of Charlotte, did not immediately respond to an Observer email Tuesday.
However, Gilmore's attorney, Aaron Michel of Charlotte, said his client is the mother of five children who has worked as a registered nurse's aide since 2007.
Alluding to Gilmore's racketeering charge, Michel said, "The racket is the government using our poor to promote their interests in the military, industrial, Wall Street complex."
He said the case against Gilmore is "like prosecuting an NFL ticket holder for the pattern of racketeering activity (murder, robbery, fraud) by players and owners."
Security at the federal courthouse surrounding the trial is expected to be tight. Government attorneys have also filed motions to limit testimony on the identity and location of potential witnesses and the steps taken to protect their safety.
The case will be heard by presiding U.S. District Judge Frank Whitney of Charlotte, a frequent jurist in gang-related cases stretching back for a decade.
Three years ago, Whitney recused himself from a UBN murder case after his name appeared on a potential threat against three court officials. It was discovered in the Mecklenburg jail cell of one of the gang's Charlotte leaders.
Gang spreads through prisons
According to the New York Daily News, Gutierrez’ criminal career started early. By 17, he was already a member of Trigger Finger Posse when he was arrested for armed robbery.
Gutierrez was arrested five more times, including once on a murder charge when he shot four people and one of them died. He was convicted of second-degree murder in 1996 and sentenced to 26 years to life.
While awaiting an assault trial in Rikers Island, Gutierrez was caught seven times with weapons and stabbed or slashed four other inmates. According to the Daily News, he received what was then a record 1,040 punishment days in the jail’s segregation unit.
Prosecutors don’t say when or why Gutierrez joined UBN, which was started by several African American inmates in Rikers Island to protect themselves from a Latino gang that was dominating the jail, the indictment says.
Soon, UBN moved south, establishing operations state by state through penitentiaries and via its drug and weapons trades.
Charlotte and North Carolina are painfully familiar with the gang’s ability to operate from behind bars.
▪ A 2012 UBN indictment in Charlotte revealed that both the gang’s top North Carolina leader and a member of its national council in New York continued to direct the gang’s day-to-day operations while in prison.
“It’s troubling for this court that incarceration did not stop you,” federal judge Whitney told Daryl “OG Powerful” Wilkinson, who was serving a murder sentence in New York when a Charlotte grand jury indicted him for racketeering, according to a transcript from Wilkinson’s 2014 trial.
▪ In 2014, an imprisoned UBN leader using a contraband cellphone sent more than 100 texts to direct the kidnapping of the father of the Raleigh prosecutor who put him in prison.
▪ That same year, Jamell “Murda Mel” Cureton of Charlotte, then an inmate of the Mecklenburg jail, ordered and helped plan the UBN murders of Doug and Debbie London of Lake Wylie, South Carolina, to keep them from testifying against Cureton and two other gang members who tried to rob the couple’s mattress company.
Cureton and confessed hit man Malcolm Hartley pleaded guilty to murder charges to avoid a possible death penalty. They are serving life sentences.
Local crackdowns against the gang have been going on for years.
In 2009, more than a dozen reputed UBN members were charged with running drugs and weapons in the Beatties Ford Road corridor of west Charlotte.
In 2013-14, more than two dozen gang members were sent away for sentences of up to 30 years.
In 2015, 12 reputed gang members were arrested in connection with the Londons’ deaths. Most have either pleaded guilty or been convicted, and have begun serving prison terms.