March 23 (UPI) -- A leader of a Hispanic-American street gang was sentenced to 16 years in prison on Tuesday for firebombing the homes of Black families to scare them from their East Los Angeles housing complex in 2014.
U.S. District Judge Christina Snyder sentenced Carlos Hernandez, 36, who pleaded guilty to five felony counts of conspiracy to violate civil rights, violent crime in aid of racketeering, criminal interference with fair housing rights, use of fire in the commission of a federal felony and carrying a firearm in the commission of a crime of violence.
During the sentencing, Snyder said the severity of his imprisonment was to "send a message to the community that hate crimes will not be tolerated."
Hernandez, who is also known as "Rider," pleaded guilty in April 2019 to having planned and joined seven other members of the Big Hazard street gang on the Mother's Day firebombing of a Ramona Gardens housing complex in Boyle Heights on May 11, 2014.
Prosecutors said the complex was targeted because it housed Black families.
"The defendant planned, coordinated and led these racially motivated attacks that targeted vulnerable families, including grandparents and infants while they were sleeping peacefully in their own homes," said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Pamela Karlan of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.
The eight gang members, including Hernandez who organized the attack, smashed windows to four apartments in order to lob lit Molotov cocktails into the residences, prosecutors said, adding three of the four Black families targeted were sleeping when the attack occurred, with one firebomb nearly hitting a mother who was sleeping on the couch with her infant on her chest.
Big Hazard is a multigenerational street gang with ties to the Mexican mafia that has been operating in Boyle Heights for more than 70 years and has been connected to killings, extortion, robbery and other crimes, the Justice Department said.
According to the indictment, Hernandez had said that the order for the firebombing attack had come from the Mexican Mafia, which controls the majority of Southern California's Hispanic gangs.
The Justice Department said Hernandez pleaded guilty to having doled out responsibilities to each of the other seven gang members along with lighters or hammers to be used in the attack.
The defendants had also removed their cellphones to prevent being connected to the crime through cellular data and traveled to the complex via a route to evade surveillance cameras.
The case remained unsolved for two years until prosecutors unsealed the charges in 2016 when the seven other gang members pleaded guilty to federal hate crimes and other offenses in connection to the firebombing.
"The defendants in this case perpetrated hate crimes that targeted innocent victims in their homes simply because of their skin color," said Acting U.S. Attorney Tracy Wilkinson of the Central District of California. "These despicable acts are simply unacceptable in our society."