Gang leader gets 7 years

The alleged leader of a local criminal street gang was sentenced today to seven years in prison, after pleading no contest to racketeering and conspiracy to commit racketeering.

Jose Angel Lopez, 19, of Bradenton, is one of nine members of the Brown Pride Locos arrested earlier this year, as part of a revamped effort to fight gang-related violence in Manatee County, authorities said.

Lopez, nicknamed "Charlie Brown", was scheduled to go to trial this week, but opted instead for a plea deal. Had he gone to trial and been convicted, he would have faced up to 30 years in prison.

Lopez was prosecuted by the state Attorney General's Office of Statewide Prosecution, in conjunction with local prosecutors.

"This is a significant step in the right direction as we continue to dismantle this type of organized crime," said Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube.

The new approach adopted by authorities targets the gangs as ongoing criminal enterprises. With a racketeering charge, the case can be prosecuted without the testimony of witnesses and victims, solving one of the biggest problems prosecutors have in attempting to convict gang members.

Each racketeering and conspiracy charge carries a $100,000 bond, making it difficult for the suspects in custody to be released before they go to trial or make a plea bargain.

Lopez was arrested in January with six other gang members: Frank "Magoo" J. Avalos Jr.; Justino "Crazy" Santana Jr.; Fernando "Freddy" Chavez; Jose "Payaso" Luis Rodriguez; Eric "E" J. Santiago; and Alberto Gutierrez. "Pistol" Pete Garcia and Pedro "Perico" Garcia were arrested in late February.

Last month, Pete Garcia, 24, and Gutierrez, 50, pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges and agreed to flip on fellow gang members and cooperate with prosecutors.

Under their deals, the men will be sentenced to no more than five years in prison if they testify against other members of the gang. Their sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 15.