Reputed Gang Leader's Murder Trial To Begin Prosecutors Say He Ordered An Underling To Shoot And Kill A Norristown Man.

Posted: March 18, 1998

Opening statements are expected today in the murder trial of a reputed gang leader who prosecutors say came from New York to organize a chapter of the Latin Kings and then ordered an underling to kill an adversary.

Wearing dark glasses, Victor Manuel Rodriguez, 25, sat impassively through two days of pretrial hearings while his attorney, and the lawyer for alleged triggerman Jorge Munoz, failed to suppress evidence the prosecutors will use to make their case.

Munoz, now 19, allegedly fired a single shot at close range into Christopher McNelly's chest on Dec. 5, 1996, on George and West Airy Streets in Norristown. According to court documents, the gun he used belonged to Rodriguez, and the shot was fired on Rodriguez's command. Prosecutors said Munoz had smoked marijuana with McNelly an hour before the shooting and only shot him because Rodriguez told him to.

Munoz will be tried separately, immediately following Rodriguez. The Rodriguez trial is expected to last six days.

Failing a motion by the defense to suppress them, letters found during a search under Munoz's bed in his cell at the Montgomery County Correction Facility will be admitted at Rodriguez's trial. During pretrial motions, prosecutors said the letters amounted to an admission of guilt.

Judge Samuel W. Salus said Monday that writing and keeping them was ``stupidity at its highest.''

Salus also denied a motion by the defense to suppress the testimony of Fidel Balan, a detective from Nassau County, Long Island, who is familiar with the Latin Kings.

``If you get Mr. and Mrs. Montgomery jurors coming in here and hearing about the Latin Kings, then that's going to mean a lot of things that aren't good for my client,'' Rodriguez's defense attorney, Xavier Hayden, said Monday.

Balan knew Rodriguez in New York, but his testimony will center on the hierarchy of the Latin Kings, their symbols and behavior.

Balan said Monday that the Latin Kings were a well-organized national gang that traded in drugs, car theft and robbery. He said that while members often professed to be community-oriented, they did little to help others.

``Obviously, because of the sensationalism involved in a gang, we wanted to keep it out,'' said Munoz's attorney, Carol Sweeney.

Salus also denied the defense's motion to suppress the testimony of a parking enforcement officer who yesterday morning said he saw Munoz fleeing the murder scene after he heard a gunshot. Mike Jones said he saw Munoz running with about a dozen other men while carrying a shotgun.

``I was sitting in my car, and they ran right by me,'' Jones said outside the courtroom yesterday. ``He was holding on to [the shotgun] with two hands.''

The next day, Norristown police and Montgomery County detectives found a 12-gauge shotgun with one spent shell lying beneath a truck.

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