United States v. Velez
Trial in Killing of Journalist Goes to the Jury
By JOSEPH P. FRIED | March 09, 1994 | New York Times
But in her closing argument in the two-week trial, Susan Kellman, Mr. Mejia Velez's lawyer, told the jurors that her client was an innnocent victim...more
The Age Of Gunman Disputed At a Trial
By JOSEPH P. FRIED | March 03, 1994 | New York Times
On cross-examination, the defense lawyer, Susan Kellman, hammered away at these initial descriptions the police attributed to Mr. Aguera... more
Trial Opens for Teenager Charged As Shooter in Drug Cartel Killing
The Washington Post
February 24, 1994 | Malcolm Gladwell
The alleged killer of crusading anti-drug journalist Manuel de Dios Unanue went on trial today in a case that is expected to paint the clearest picture yet of the ruthless global reach of the Cali cocaine cartel.
Acting on orders from Colombian drug lords, the prosecution charged, 18-year-old Alejandro Wilson Mejia Velez walked into a restaurant in Queens two years ago, "coldly, calmly and professionally" aimed a gun at de Dios and "blew his brains away."
As Mejia Velez - a pale, thin teenager described by his lawyer as being of below normal intelligence - looked on blankly, a federal prosecutor described to the jury a plan to silence de Dios that they said began at the highest level of the Cali cartel and ended with Mejia Velez pulling the trigger before 40 horrified diners in March 1992.
But Mejia Velez's court-appointed attorney, Susan Kellman, painted a much different picture of the accused killer. She contended that her client had accompanied two other men on the day of the shooting, but sat in the car, oblivious to events in the restaurant, while the deed was done.
"They brought along my client for a good reason, to point the finger at him," Kellman said, in an emotional opening argument.
Mejia Velez, she said, was "not as bright as everyone else," a callow teenager who ended up the victim of a slick game of "hot potato" played by experienced criminals.
"My client isn't even smart enough to know the potato is hot," she said.
The trial, taking place in federal court in Brooklyn, is the first in the de Dios killing, in which seven people have been charged with playing a role in the execution of the journalist. Mejia Velez is the only member of the group to have pleaded not guilty, however, and several of the others will testify against him in the coming weeks in exchange for reduced sentences.
The government pledged today to produce witnesses who would describe how the head of the Cali cartel could "snap his fingers and get someone killed" in New York or Miami.
According to Assistant U.S. Attorney Julie Katzman, the cartel ordered de Dios's execution because he had become a major embarrassment for the organization. The Cuban-born de Dios, who was 48 when he was killed, established a reputation for fearless investigation of the drug trade in the 1980s as editor at the influential New York Spanish language daily El Diario-La Prensa, where he photographed locations where drugs were sold and repeatedly identified drug dealers by name. He left the newspaper in 1989 to publish his own anti-drug magazine and produce a radio show called "What Others Won't Say" in which he carried his crusade against the cartel to new heights.
Both prosecution and defense agree on the cartel's attitude toward de Dios and on the subsequent journey of the execution order down the chain of command from Colombia to New York City. Where they disagree is on what role Mejia Velez played.
According to the government's case, Mejia Velez was called in to act as the triggerman by two local hit men who were recruited to kill de Dios by a representative of the cartel at a "shady pool hall" in Queens. Mejia Velez, Katzman alleged, was picked by the two hit men, one of whom was nicknamed "Scarface," given a gun and driven to the restaurant where de Dios was eating.
For his part, Katzman alleged, Mejia Velez was given a "couple thousand bucks" out of the $50,000 contract. In a statement given to police, Mejia Velez confessed to accompanying the two men to the restaurant on the day of the shooting.
Kellman, however, called the government's theory a "joke." She said that one of the eyewitnesses closest to the shooting identified the shooter as in his mid-thirties and weighing 160 to 165 pounds. Mejia Velez, she said, is 18 and weighs "119 pounds soaking wet." Furthermore, she said, none of the 40 people in the restaurant at the time were able to identify her client.
She also argued that it made no sense for the organizers of an execution as important to the Cali cartel as that of de Dios to give final responsibility to an untested teenager.
Throughout the arguments, Mejia Velez sat motionless, staring intently at his lawyer.
Last October, Mejia Velez was found in his cell with a sheet around his neck fastened to a bedpost. According to a psychiatrist who treated him, Mejia Velez says he has heard a buzzing sound in his ears and voices since his father's death several years ago and has stated that he would commit suicide if convicted.
DRUG DEALER DETAILS ROLE IN KILLING OF JOURNALIST.
Albany Times Union (Albany, NY) February 24, 1994
Byline: JUDIE GLAVE - Associated Press
An admitted drug dealer for the powerful Cali cartel broke down and cried Wednesday while being questioned in the trial of a teenager charged with killing and anti-drug crusading journalist.
John Harold Mena, 25, told jurors in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn that Manuel de Dios Unanue was killed because he was "messing around" with the Colombian-based cartel.
De Dios, 48, former editor of El Diario-La Prensa, a New York-based Spanish-language daily, was a vociferous anti-drug advocate who wrote extensively about the Cali cartel.
On March 11, 1992, he was sitting at the bar at Meson Asturias restaurant in Jackson Heights when a gunman wearing a hooded sweat shirt walked up and fired two shots point-blank into the back of de Dios' head.
Wilson Alejandro Mejia Velez, 17, is on trial for pulling the trigger. Five others, including Mena, have pleaded guilty to various charges of aiding and abetting in the plot and are cooperating with the government.
The Colombian-born Mena, the first witness at Mejia's trial, detailed how the order to kill de Dios came from Colombia and the hit was contracted and subcontracted again.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Julie Katzman said in opening arguments that "for a few thousand bucks, the defendant walked up behind Manuel de Dios and coldly, calmly and professionally blew his brains out."
Defense attorney Susan Kellman said her client was only a pawn in the conspiracy, "someone to point the finger at." She said that although her then 17-year-old client knew a murder was about to take place and was in the car, he did not pull the trigger.
Mena, a one-time dishwasher who received $50,000 a month from the cartel for laundering money and delivering drugs, has admitted participating in four murders. He tearfully renounced his life of crime on Wednesday.
"Everyday I live with the remorse. I feel the pain. Everyday I ask God to forgive me for what I have done and for my blindness," he said sobbing as an interpreter repeated his words in English.
He said he drove the car and helped track targets in murders in Florida and Baltimore but never fired a gun.
Tears overflowed again as Mena told how he will never see his wife and children again because he is in the federal Witness Protection Program and how the Cali cartel is "going to look for me and kill me."
Mena said the order to kill de Dios came from Cali cartel boss Jose Santacruz Londono, or "Chepe," because the journalist continued writing articles about the drug ring and was working on a book about them.
The order was passed to Guillermo Leon Gaviria Restrepo in New York, whom Katzman called Santacruz's "right-hand man in charge of executions." He, in turn, called on his brother-in-law, Mena, to help find a killer.
Mena said Restrepo wanted Juan Carlos Velasco, known as "Leo," to carry out the hit because he had done a murder for the cartel in Baltimore.
Though Velasco accepted the job for $20,000, Katzman said, he ended up "subcontracting it" so he could complete a planned drug deal in Florida.
The prosecutor said Velasco, who has also pleaded guilty in the case, hired James Benitez, also called "Scarface," and Elkin Farley Salazar, known as "Pocho."
Benitez and Salazar then called Mejia in Staten Island, where he was living with a family friend and working in a chair factory, and told them they had a job for him, Katzman said.
The night of the murder, the prosecutor said, Mejia wrapped his fingers in tape so he wouldn't leave any prints on the gun, put on a hooded sweatshirt to hide his face and drove with the other two to Queens to kill de Dios.
Velasco paid the three $15,000,which they split three ways, the prosecutor said.