Ore. racketeering trial offers inside view into gang culture of rivalry, retribution

Former Hoover gang members, one of Portland’s most violent gangs, have taken to the witness stand for the government


Maxine Bernstein
oregonlive.com

PORTLAND, Ore. — It was called “putting in the work” — code for how to win greater status in Portland’s Hoover gang – whether it meant shootings, beat downs, home invasion robberies, drug dealing or pimping.

A handful of former Hoover insiders have provided rare insight into one of Portland’s most violent gangs as they’ve taken the witness stand for the government in the first racketeering trial of a street-level gang in federal court in Oregon.

By the end of a federal racketeering conspiracy trial against two veteran Hoover gang members, prosecutors are expected to have elicited testimony from witnesses and accomplices to three killings, at least 12 attempted murders and six armed robberies from 1989 through 2017 in and around Portland.
By the end of a federal racketeering conspiracy trial against two veteran Hoover gang members, prosecutors are expected to have elicited testimony from witnesses and accomplices to three killings, at least 12 attempted murders and six armed robberies from 1989 through 2017 in and around Portland. (Photo/Oregonian)

With often monotone, matter-of-fact testimony, they have described in striking detail how the mere presence of a rival or the slightest hint of perceived disrespect would spur them to pull a gun and shoot, pistol-whip or rob someone, with little concern for who they harmed.

“It was pretty much us against everybody,” said Rusty Rex Rean, wearing black-and-white striped jail scrubs as he testified in a downtown Portland courtroom.

Rivals include Crips and most Blood gang sets in the city. The only Hoover allies in Portland have been the Unthank Park Hustlers and the Inglewood Family Bloods.

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Rean, who was known as “Baby Iceman” on the street and dubbed “Starface” in prison, formally denounced his Hoover affiliation while in federal prison in 2019 but his gang ties remain visible on his face, neck, arms and chest. A Houston Astros logo – an H inside a star — is tattooed on his right cheek and ‘”Hoover Crim’’ is dead center on his chest.

“Why shoot at someone?” prosecutor Leah Bolstad asked Rean.

Rean, 43, chuckled, then responded: “Simply because they were on the opposite side, the opposite team. ... It just goes back and forth. The whole idea is: ‘I want to have the last say in this battle.’”

Most of the cooperating witnesses are in custody, though one completed a 15-year prison term and was escorted to the witness stand under heavy security from plainclothes FBI agents.

They’re considered critical witnesses in the trial of two veteran Hoover members, Ronald Clayton Rhodes, 37, and Lorenzo Laron Jones, 49. Each face charges of racketeering conspiracy and murder in aid of racketeering. Between the two, they’re accused of three killings. If convicted, they face mandatory life sentences.

By the end of the trial, prosecutors are expected to have elicited testimony from witnesses and accomplices to the three killings, at least 12 attempted murders and six armed robberies from 1989 through 2017 in and around Portland.

Among those are several notorious crimes that have led to recurring retaliatory shootings between rival gangs for at least the past decade, police say.

Some of the cooperating witnesses testified that they were housed in jail with either Rhodes or Jones and that the men boasted to them of their respective roles in a killing.

Defense lawyers have worked to discredit those witnesses as willing to say anything to win lenient sentences or reduced prison terms and avoid life in prison.

They’ve highlighted numerous inconsistencies or outright lies in the witnesses’ prior statements to police, prosecutors or judges over the years, as well as their own cold-blooded crimes.

In the first three weeks, more than one witness has acknowledged falsely implicating people in killings even though they knew the people weren’t involved.

And Rean, under cross-examination, admitted he once tried to “play crazy,” telling psychologists who were evaluating him that God had directed him to repeatedly stab another prisoner in the back of the neck, in an attempt to pursue an insanity defense.

“I tried,” he said, shrugging. “It didn’t work.”

‘I WANTED REVENGE’

The Hoover members who testified said they were drawn to the gang, often influenced by older family members or friends. Some said it filled a void in their lives.

From young ages, they were encouraged and celebrated for fighting to defend themselves, they said.

Ceontae Poston, a co-defendant who pleaded guilty earlier in the case, said he joined the gang at age 12 when a friend was shot and killed in 2011.

Poston, who lived in the New Columbia housing complex, was one or two blocks away when he heard gunshots and found out Shalamar Edmond, 18, had been killed near North Trenton Street.

“I wanted revenge,” Poston testified. “I felt the need to fill the void, take after him … step into his place.”

Shortly after that, Poston said he got “jumped in” to the gang in a back alley of New Columbia, basically a “free for all” beating by other gang members for 107 seconds, representing the 107 Hoover set.

Once he withstood the thrashing, other gang members shook his hand, hugged him and handed him orange bandanas.

That night, he said, he also was given a gun.

Poston, whose street name is “Lil Dute Fly,” pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy for his involvement in an attempted murder and several violent robberies.

He acknowledged on the witness stand that he was involved in an armed home break-in that turned into the fatal shooting of a suspected cocaine dealer in Milwaukie in September 2016. Poston was 18 at the time.

He wasn’t the shooter. At least two other men, including Poston’s cousin, Keith B. Woody Jr., were charged in the killing. Woody has pleaded guilty to the shooting and racketeering conspiracy.

Under cross-examination, Poston said his cousin told him before the Milwaukie shooting that he wanted to kill someone, that it was the one thing he hadn’t done yet in his life.

Weeks after the home invasion, Poston and another man robbed a clerk at a Southeast Portland convenience store called the Milwaukie Market. They pistol-whipped the clerk and ordered him to get on the floor in front of his 5-year-old daughter.

Prosecutors showed jurors some of the photos and videos that Poston posted on Instagram and Facebook to antagonize rivals. He wrote on Instagram in 2016: “We running the city y’all.”

Asked what the goal of the Hoovers was, Poston responded: “To be feared, respected by everyone.”

‘UP ON THE SCORE’

Another cooperating witness offered a blow-by-blow account of a 2015 killing outside a Plaid Pantry in Southeast Portland, what prosecutors called “an unprovoked drive-by murder.”

Javier Hernandez, 26, also a co-defendant who pleaded guilty to a racketeering conspiracy in the case, testified against Rhodes.

Hernandez said he was only 19 when Rhodes handed him a gun and told him to shoot at two men who were smoking outside the convenience store.

Hernandez had met Rhodes after he dropped out of Vancouver’s Evergreen High School a month before graduation in the wake of getting kicked off the football team for a fight, he said.

He started to sell marijuana to get money “just to smoke.” One of his dealers introduced him to Rhodes and soon Hernandez was driving around Portland with Rhodes every day, dealing hard drugs, including cocaine, heroin, Ecstasy and “anything that I could get my hands on.”

He estimated the two made about $3,500 on a typical day selling drugs in Portland, profits that they split in half.

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Hernandez was “jumped in” to the 107 Hoovers a week before the Plaid Pantry killing, he testified. Rhodes, who went by “Big Fly” on the street, picked out Hernandez’s gang name, “Stoney Flyckoon,” making him part of the informal Hoover “Fly Family.”

On Dec. 16, 2015, the Hoovers were looking for rivals to harm in retaliation for the wounding four days earlier of one of the Portland Hoover founders, Leonard Ray Brightmon Jr., in downtown Portland. The Hoovers believed Rolling 60 Crips were responsible for the shooting, he said.

That afternoon, Hernandez and Rhodes stopped by the Southeast Portland apartment of their drug source, where Rhodes directed Hernandez to sample the cocaine to see if it was good, Hernandez testified.

A fellow Hoover then summoned Hernandez to a nearby Plaid Pantry at Southeast 112th Avenue and Division Street, telling him that he saw two people outside who could be rivals but he didn’t have a gun and wanted Hernandez to come by, Hernandez said.

About 2:30 p.m., Rhodes, driving a rented white SUV with Hernandez in the passenger seat, pulled up to the men outside the store, according to Hernandez.

“Hey Groove, where you from?” Rhodes asked, according to Hernandez. One of the men said he was from Oakland and wasn’t tied to a gang. The other man said he was “60s” and threw up his gang signs, Hernandez said.

“Mr. Rhodes handed me the gun and tells me to shoot,” Hernandez testified, showing little emotion on the stand. “I grabbed it, stuck my hand out the window and started to shoot.”

He said he didn’t remember how many shots he fired from the 9mm Glock handgun.

“I was still high on cocaine,” he said.

Bullets struck and killed 21-year-old Kyle Polk, who had been smoking outside the store on his way home from his first day at a new job. He died from a gunshot wound to the chest.

As Rhodes and Hernandez drove back to Vancouver, where they shared a house, Rhodes pulled over on the Interstate 205 bridge and threw the gun into the Columbia River, Hernandez testified.

“Did you shoot and kill another human being?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Parakh Singh asked Hernandez.

“Yeah,” Hernandez said. It was the first time he had fired a gun, he added.

Javonni Deshawn Matthew, who had been standing with Polk at the Plaid Pantry, offered slightly different testimony.

He said it was the front passenger riding in the white SUV who asked where he and Polk were from and then shot at them.

Neither he nor Polk claimed allegiance to the Rolling 60s, he said.

“By the time I seen someone’s mouth moving, it was already too late. I’d seen the gun,” Matthew said.

After the shooting, Hernandez testified, he felt “like we were up on the score.”

“We killed one of them.”

In taking a plea deal and testifying against his former mentor to avoid a life sentence, Hernandez may have been drawing from one of the gang rules he said Rhodes had instilled in him.

“Always be the aggressor,” he said. “Never be on the defense.”

‘EMPTYING THE CLIP’

A 24-year-old retaliation killing at the El Moro Apartments in Southeast Portland drew hours of testimony over several days.

The July 19, 1998, shooting left Ausencio Genchi Garcia, 27, dead at the scene from a gunshot to the head. More than a dozen bullets were fired. Some pierced the tires of parked cars; others hit the brick buildings in the 95-unit complex.

Jones, known on the street as “Low Down,” is on trial for murder in aid of racketeering in Garcia’s death.

Jones wasn’t indicted in state court in connection with the killing but his alleged accomplice, Karl Armstrong Jr., pleaded guilty in 2003 to conspiracy to commit murder in state court.

Armstrong and Rean both testified that Jones admitted to them that he was the shooter.

The fatal confrontation followed an earlier fight at the apartment complex. Rean had chastised someone for driving too fast through the area and it led to a fight. Rean was knocked unconscious after he was hit in the head by a Corona beer bottle. It fractured his skull and knocked his right eyeball partially out of its socket.

Rean’s mother lived in the apartment complex, and Rean and Jones had sold cocaine there, according to court testimony.

About six months after the shooting, Rean and Jones were housed in the same jail unit in Portland on unrelated charges. Rean said Jones bragged to him that he had gotten even for Rean’s injuries.

Jones, he said, told him that Armstrong had parked behind the El Moro Apartments while Jones went into the complex and waited near one of the buildings for the people who had been involved in the fight earlier that night to emerge.

When they came out, Jones said he “started emptying the clip,” Rean testified.

Jones said he ran, jumped the fence and got into a car with Armstrong, dumped the gun and changed his clothes, according to Rean.

But Rean never testified to a state grand jury about the fatal shooting when subpoenaed in 2002 or 2003. He was “on the run,” a fugitive at the time, he said.

Armstrong, now 47, was escorted to the witness stand by several FBI agents during the first week of the trial in response to a subpoena.

Dressed in a black button-down shirt and blue jeans, Armstrong was blunt when asked if he wanted to be in court: “No,” he said.

A former Hoover, he testified that Jones had called him to meet at the El Moro Apartments.

Armstrong, known on the street as “Squirrel,” said when he arrived at the complex off Southeast 122nd Avenue, he got in Jones’ car and Jones drove them to the back.

Jones, he said, “got out, went through some backyards. And I sat there and waited.”

About five to 10 minutes later, Armstrong said, he heard gunshots. He didn’t see Jones fire, he testified.

But after Jones got back in the car and as they drove away, Armstrong said: “He told me he got him.”

Armstrong said he didn’t know who had been shot.

Defense lawyers pointed out that Armstrong’s testimony contradicted what he told police years earlier – both that he saw Jones shoot a man as soon as the man stepped out of an apartment and that Armstrong himself had shot the man.

But Armstrong said neither was the case. “I got caught, so I pretty much told them I did it,” he said of his thinking 20 years ago.

Armstrong served 15 years in prison in the shooting before his release in June 2017. It was part of a plea agreement that covered three separate criminal cases, including a federal drug conviction, a 2002 state attempted murder case and the conspiracy to commit murder case. As part of the deal, Armstrong agreed to cooperate with state and federal prosecutors and testify about the Garcia murder, according to court testimony.

Armstrong said he signed the plea papers without reading them.

He was “just ready to get this over with … I didn’t want to live like this no more.” he said.

‘I FELT VALUABLE’

Like with Armstrong, defense lawyers painted Rean as a liar who would say anything for his own benefit.

Rean has eight years left on a 25-year sentence for bank robbery and assault with the intent to commit murder.

Under a vigorous cross-examination, Rean acknowledged he lied to police in earlier interviews and to a judge during a court hearing.

Though he testified in this case that he started selling crack cocaine at age 16, he previously told a federal judge that he never sold cocaine in his life. When one of Jones’ lawyers, Ryan O’Connor, zeroed in on the conflicting statements, Rean said, “Technically, yes, that would be a lie.”

Rean also admitted to dealing drugs, firing guns at people he didn’t know and trafficking women for sex, even writing a letter from jail to a 14-year-old girl in juvenile custody trying to recruit her for prostitution.

Rean robbed a schoolchild of $19 and held up a bank clerk by passing her a note that read, “This is a robbery. Don’t make it a murder,” making off with $1,700 in cash.

In federal prison, Rean described how he used an icepick to stab another inmate in the back of his neck five times. The attack was ordered by a prison gang “shot caller” after Rean had shared that the target had been bullying a fellow gang member.

Rean displayed no emotion as he described his crimes and those of others that he said were done largely to increase their standing in the Hoovers.

He said his stepfather’s family was involved in the Hoovers and he grew up with violence all around him.

He won praise for beating up a rival when he was 10. The family house became a popular gang hangout, and they ran an after-hours gambling and alcohol club in their basement, he said.

He recalled firing indiscriminately at people on their porches when he was 12 or 13, riding around with veteran gang members looking for trouble.

Afterward, they celebrated, he said, by sharing a “couple of 40- ouncers, cigarettes, playing music, laughing about it.” They told him how he was going to be “someone to be reckoned with” when he grew up, he said.

“I felt like someone believed in me,” he said. “I felt valuable to other people.”

After he was charged with the prison stabbing, Rean said he had a change of heart.

He now regrets his gang life, he said. Defense lawyers suggested he’s simply playing the system, looking to reduce his prison term by cooperating.

In 2019, Rean submitted a 56-page handwritten “gang dropout” packet to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, characterized in court as an autobiography of his gang life, sharing details of his and other Hoover crimes.

“I realized I had lived a life of following orders and being influenced by the wrong people,” Rean testified. “I see more and more people out there going through the same crap that I did.”

The trial is expected to last several more weeks before it goes to the jury.

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