In Chandra Levy case, ex-gang enforcer plays pivotal role

McClatchy NewspapersApril 12, 2013 

— Armando Morales can be a dangerous man, whichever side he’s on.

Once, Morales handled illicit business for the Fresno, Calif., Bulldogs street gang. Then his compelling testimony against a former cellmate he called a “good friend” secured the conviction of the man accused of killing Chandra Levy.

Now, amid new questions about his credibility, the former gang-enforcer-turned-prison-snitch is back in the hot seat. What happens next might turn the Levy murder mystery upside down, while raising questions about what prosecutors knew and when they knew it. At the very least, it will swing a spotlight on a street-smart man with a violent past and, he says, a changed heart.

“This is a gentleman,” defense attorney Santha Sonenberg said, “who, every time, operates on his own self-interest.”

Sonenberg’s characterization came during the November 2010 trial of Ingmar Guandique, the man convicted of killing Levy in Washington’s Rock Creek Park. At the time of her 2001 death, the 24-year-old Levy was about to return to her home in Modesto, Calif., after graduate school and a Federal Bureau of Prisons internship.

In recent months, attorneys have argued about potential problems with a witness, but have never revealed the person’s identity. But a trial judge on Thursday revealed Morales as that prosecution witness about whom new evidence has arisen. The evidence itself remains secret, but defense attorneys say it casts enough doubt on Morales’ credibility that they’ll request a new trial. It’s a remarkable development for a case that’s already had more than its share.

Levy’s disappearance attracted national attention after revelations of an affair with her hometown’s married congressman, Democratic then-Rep. Gary Condit. Condit testified at Guandique’s 2010 trial, essentially to put to rest defense suggestions that he might have had something to do with Levy’s disappearance.

Condit’s testimony, though, was a sideshow. The trial’s main event came when Morales arrived on the eighth day, shackled and dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit. He had a black mustache and a shaved head. He wore glasses. He sounded sincere when he testified about what Guandique allegedly had told him, with devastating results for the defense.

“He said, ‘Homeboy, I killed that bitch, but I didn’t rape her,’ ” Morales testified.

Morales had briefly shared a cell with Guandique in 2006 at U.S. Penitentiary, Big Sandy, in Kentucky.

Morales turned 52 on Feb. 18. An unmarried father, he was sentenced on gun and drug charges in 1997 to 22 years in prison. The public Bureau of Prisons inmate-locator database no longer lists his status, a possible indicator that he’s in protective custody.

Wherever Morales is, he bears the evidence of a hard life. On his left hand, Morales has a gang tattoo of a bulldog’s paw; on his back, a gang tattoo of what he describes as “my neighborhood.” He has a string of convictions, according to his trial testimony.

In his testimony in 2010, Morales said he was born, premature, in Fresno. Some called him “Mouse” because of his modest size. By the time he was 12, he’d left the sixth grade and joined his first gang. He later told jurors he was “one of the 12 founders” of the Fresno Bulldogs.

The gang, Fresno-based federal prosecutor Duce Rice said in a 2010 interview, “has been a thorn in Fresno’s side for 30 years.” He characterized Morales as a “street thug” who’s “hurt a lot of people” over the years.

“I was head of security,” Morales testified at the Levy murder trial. “If anything had to be done, like any stabbing, any violence, that was my job.”

Citing the ongoing case, a spokesman for the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department declined to comment.

Though uneducated, Morales comes across as intelligent. Some might call him canny. He speaks some Tagalog, a language of the Philippines, as well as some Japanese and Chinese, in addition to English and Spanish. In prison, he covertly made a set of handcuff keys by filing down staples, he testified in 2010. He also made a prison shank by melting plastic utensils in a tiny flame sparked from a battery, and he enrolled in a prison skills program.

Occasionally, while still free, Morales would work as a roofer or as a cook. Mostly, though, he ran the streets, pulling heists and selling illegal commodities, court records show.

“It was easier,” Morales testified. “It paid better.”

According to court records, his official career began in May 1982, when he robbed a Fresno 7-11 store and a Winchell’s Donut House. The next month, Morales robbed a liquor store clerk. After his arrest, he was charged with assaulting a jail guard. He spent time at the California state prisons at Folsom and San Quentin.

Freed for a few years, Morales was arrested again in 1996 on drug and firearms charges. An informant wearing a wire recorded him at his Fresno home and at several Mexican restaurants in town, selling meth, crack and a .38-caliber derringer pistol.

Morales ultimately pleaded guilty. He also says he left the gangs behind, testifying that he dropped out in 1996 because he “got tired of the game.”

Attorneys will be sorting through the information that allegedly undercuts Morales’ credibility. Defense attorneys think that prosecutors should have known it, and shared it with the defense, at the time of the trial, but that has yet to be proved.

“I think it may be just a bit of information that wasn’t known, or wasn’t made known through diligent efforts,” District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Gerald Fisher said at a bench conference Dec. 18. “I haven’t reached those conclusions.”

Email: mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @MichaelDoyle10

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