Israel Villa (copy)

Israel Villa, former policy coordinator with the organization MILPA, pictured at the organization's Oldtown Salinas office.

In the days following publication of a jointly reported story in the Monterey County Weekly, Voices of Monterey Bay and on KSBW revealing a prison gang's efforts to wield influence and positions of leadership within a Salinas organization that advocates for criminal justice reform, leadership has been defiant. 

In press conferences on Oct. 24 and 28, MILPA leaders and allies released statements of support. Executive Director Juan Gomez announced that the Action Council of Monterey County, MILPA's fiscal sponsor, had placed the programs and policy coordinator, Israel Villa on leave

On Nov. 4, the organization announced that Villa had resigned. 

“This past week both Action Council of Monterey County and MILPA conducted an internal review of the facts and circumstances related to the video concerning Israel Villa," according to a statement. "The organizations met with the employee, and at the conclusion of the discussion Mr. Villa resigned.”

MILPA officials have declined to answer questions from members of the press at press conferences or in response to press releases. 

Villa held a press conference on Nov. 5; the Weekly was not notified, but KION attended and posted a video of him reading a statement. 

"I categorically reject the efforts of anyone who tries to portray me as a gang member," Villa said, according to KION's footage. 

"I remain disheartened by the dishonest and baseless attacks on my character by some in the local media and law enforcement community. Considering their influence and effectiveness, and all that is at stake for me and my community, I have reason to be cautious about engaging with them. 

"As such, until I have secured legal representation, I will not answer any questions."

Villa came under scrutiny after a video was released from the Salinas Police Department, per the California Public Records Act, on Oct. 16 to various local media outlets.

The video is a recording of a video call made by Tai Cruz, an inmate at Monterey County Jail, talking to friends gathered at the Salinas Rodeo Grounds, Villa among them. In it, he is seen pointing to the “M” on his Miami Marlins hat, which represents the Salinas East Market faction of the Norteños. He then puts his hand over his mouth and then quickly draws a finger across his neck—a gesture, sources say, meant to silence Cruz from sharing the location of a murder victim's body.

For the first time since the video was released, Villa addressed the content of that call in his remarks on Tuesday. 

"To be clear, I was recorded joking around with a young man that I know," he said, according to footage of the press conference. "I made a mistake and I know that I am not and will never be perfect. Therefore, on Oct. 31, I made a decision to resign from MILPA, as my mistake should not impact the organization and its future. I remain very grateful for all MILPA invested in me, and I am very proud of all my and our accomplishments." 

Sara Rubin loves long public meetings, red pens and reading (on newsprint). She has been editor of the Monterey County Weekly since 2016, and has been on staff since 2010.

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