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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Saturday, April 12, 2014

A Convenience Store for Professional Criminals

“The weather here is gorgeous. It's mild and feels like it's in the eighties. The hot dog vendors got confused because of the weather and thought it was spring, so they accidentally changed the hot dog water in their carts.”
--David Letterman

The little silver cart with the white and beige umbrella that sat in the parking strip at Alum Rock and Foss avenues may have looked like a garden variety food stand but looks can be deceiving.

Lethally deceiving.

Until Sept. 2, 2011, the innocent-looking cart alongside the Valero gas station was actually a sort of convenience store for criminals.

A Dairy Mart for dirtbags, so to speak. A veritable 7-Eleven for shitbirds.

If you needed Schedule "A" drugs, you could hit the stand up for blue crystal in large quantities. The cart jockeys would hook you up with a pound of the stuff, enough to wire your eyeballs to the max but still leave you some to peddle to the kids at James Lick High less than a mile away.

You say you want to withdraw a little walking around money from the till of the local 7-Eleven but you forgot to stock up on the ammo you need to get the job done? No sweat: With just a couple hours lead time, the cats behind the food cart's steam table could set you up with 2,000 high-grade rounds and five magazines to contain them.

Got guns? If not, you're covered, homes: your friendly food stand vatos could front you revolvers, automatic pistols, sawed off shotguns -- everything right up to a full rock 'n' roll AK-47, a handful of clips and enough shells to pop a cap in every one-timer wearing a badge in Santa Clara County.

A fully automatic AK-47 like one of these was available through the hot dog stand in San Jose less than a mile from a city high school. Federal gun experts test fired the weapon after they bought it and found it was a true "street sweeper" that would empty a magazine with a single pull of the trigger. 

When undercover cops posing as criminals bought the machine gun, the food  stand's proprietors tossed in a Ruger magnum six-shooter like this for a few bucks more. Such a bargain!

Hell, if you worked up un poco apetito while you were shopping for illicit merchandise, the two carneros who ran the wagon could even provide you with a fully-loaded perro caliente, complete with chips and a cold can of soda to wash it all down.

Dig it: a hot dog stand that actually sold dogs -- along with virtually all the tools of the criminal's trade.

Sure the dogs might be made out of horsemeat and contain more fat that a chunk of cheap chorizo, but at least they were filling; Consider them a convenience for customers, sort of like eating the rubbery meatballs at Ikea after you've wandered around for an hour or two trying to locate the bathroom.

This wasn't some cheap-jack set up, either: no drugs stepped on so many times they looked like a welcome mat at a Nevada whorehouse; no nickel-plated Saturday Night Specials more likely to blow away your fingertips than the manager between you and the money on the other side of your neighborhood  mom-and-pop's check-out counter.

No sir: this was the real deal, the genuine article. The cart moved methamphetamine that assayed out at 73 percent pure; that's primo toot, my friend. What's more, it dealt 17 firearms in only four and a half months -- and those were just the guns it sold to undercover cops! 

God only knows how many more it put into circulation when the 5-Oh was looking the other way.

As Ginzo the grifter once said: "They'd sell you everything you needed  but a piece of ass."

These days the food stand is still sitting in the Valero parking strip with an ice chest full of cold ones on the ground alongside, surrounded by locals with a junk food Jones. But the cart's lucrative sideline arming the underworld and supplying those damned blue-collar tweakers with Tina are through.

As it turns out, the food stand was the target of an undercover investigation by the San Jose police and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

The probe went on for nearly five months. On Sept. 2, 2011, during the second of two crystal meth buys engineered by undercover cops and the feds, the men behind the underworld convenience store were collared like a pair of gimps at a BDSM play party.

That was then; this is now. Last week, the saga of the crime cart was scheduled to come to a partial close when one of the two proprietors, Guillermo Gonzalez  Castillo, 23, was up for sentencing in U.S. District Court in San Jose.

It isn't clear from court records what happened at his April 7 sentencing. The last document in the case was filed on April 4, and U.S. District Court Judge Edward Davila placed the record under a court-ordered seal that makes it unavailable to the public.

What we do know is that Castillo, who goes by the street name "Gallo" (Rooster), has been cooling his heels in jail since his arrest back in 2011. He agreed to plead guilty to thirteen separate violations of the federal criminal code last Sept. 16. 

Those counts included dealing in firearms without a federal license, sneaking back into the U.S. after being deported, selling undercover officers illegal AK-47 assault rifles, being an illegal alien in possession of firearms, possession of a Ruger Mini-14, a 9-millimeter Marlin Model 9 rifle, a Simonov Semiautomatic carbine, a second AK-47, a sawed-off Remington twelve gauge and selling methamphetamine.

And don't let the NRA jerk you around: these weren't guns for repelling burglars, protecting yourself from muggers or resisting the U.S. government when it comes to take you away in chains. With only a couple of exceptions, these were military grade weapons -- the kind being used to kill and cripple American G.I.s in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

"Gallo" and his crime partner, 58-year-old Jose Gilberto Ortiz, an ex-con who is known on the street as "Chepe," were indicted by a federal grand jury on Oct. 12, 2011. 

Prosecutors identified Ortiz as the man who actually owned and ran the hot dog stand and acted as a contact and intermediary for Castillo. 

The grand jury said Ortiz had violated the federal criminal code a total of eleven times. Specifically he was charged with: engaging in gun sales without a license; being an ex-con in possession of firearms; possession of an unregistered .357-magnum Smith and Wesson revolver; a 5.56-millimeter Romarm SAR 3 rifle that resembles an AK-47; an A.A. Arms, Inc. 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol; a Norinco 9-millimeter knock-off of the Russian Tokarev military automatic; and a Mauser 9-millimeter, a German handgun that looks like a Luger.

"Chepe" Ortiz was an ex-con barred from legally owning firearms, but that didn't keep him from possessing a Romarm 5.56-millimeter AK knock off like the two at the top of this illustration, a Chinese-made Tokarev copy like the one in the middle or a Mauser 9-millimeter like the pistol at the bottom.

Ortiz was originally schedule to stand trial last Aug. 24, but after a court hearing a couple of weeks earlier his trial date was vacated. The court docket for the case does not disclose the status of the criminal charges against Ortiz at the time, and no new trial date has been scheduled to date.

Both men were arrested Sept. 2, 2011, during the second of two transactions in which they allegedly sold crystal methamphetamine to undercover officers at Ortiz' hot dog cart.  Court record said the pinches were the result of a five-month undercover probe.

The charges against Castillo could put him behind bars for 60 years; those pending for Ortiz could result in a 20 year prison sentence.

According to court records, the cart and its unusual merchandise came to the attention of police sometime prior to April 17, 2011. An affidavit sworn by BATF agent Dennis M. Larko said an undercover San Jose police investigator identified only as Flores had learned Ortiz was dealing guns early in the investigation and contacted him by telephone.

"Ortiz told [undercover officer] Flores that he knew someone selling an AK 47 rifle," the affidavit says.  "Ortiz gave . . . Flores the phone number of a person who he referred to as 'Gallo.' UC  Flores contacted 'Gallo' and arranged to purchase the AK 47 with four magazines and 2000 rounds of 7.62 ammunition for $1,400."

It was the first of what would end up being a series of illicit transactions over the next four and a half months. Additional arms buys were made on June 17, June 22, July 8 and 26, 2011, and two months later on Sept. 2. Court records say that during two of those sales, Castillo met with undercover investigators near a house on 343 West Court where the guns apparently were being stored while awaiting a buyer. He used a baby stroller to transport the weapons from his pick-up truck to the buyers' car for sale.

343 West Court, San Jose, California.

In addition to guns, methamphetamine was purchased from the food cart duo during the undercover investigation.

It is comforting to know that Castillo, a scoff-law who clearly was not slowed down by his prior deportation, is facing a long prison sentence, but it is troubling that  the charges against Ortiz have gone nowhere. After all, court records indicate that he owned the food cart and acted as the broker for the gun and drug deals.

What is even more disturbing is the fact that the really big fish in the case is the person that supplied Castillo and Ortiz with their weapons and drugs -- and he (assuming it is a man and not a woman) is not mentioned in the indictment or any other court documents available to the public.

That means that even though the hot dog cart has stopped arming the underworld, there is still somebody in the San Jose area who is putting guns on the street without difficulty: "Gallo" and "Chepe's" original supplier.  

Let's hope that the ATF and San Jose cops are looking for him, too. Otherwise, we may be hearing about another convenience store for hoodlums in the near future. Only this time the weapons it sells may end up wounding or killing some innocent citizen.

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