Israel Villa

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

On April 10 of this year, after Paulino Guzman III’s stepmother begged the man who admitted killing Guzman to tell the family where they could find his body, and after the judge hearing the case also asked the defendant sitting before him to do the right thing for the sake of the grieving family, Tai Agoun Cruz said only this: “No comment.” 

Now, the question is, did he keep quiet that day out of allegiance to his gang, the Salinas East Market faction of the Norteños, or did he keep quiet because someone higher up in the gang’s hierarchy threatened him?

In a video released on Wednesday, Oct. 16 under purview of the California Public Records Act, Cruz, shirtless and flanked by two friends, is shown making a video phone call from the Monterey County Jail to other friends on the outside. The roughly nine-minute video call took place on March 22, just weeks before the sentencing hearing and before Cruz would refuse to give up the location of Guzman’s body. 

The video shows the call’s recipient at an event being held at a banquet hall, and that recipient walks the phone around to various groups of people so Cruz can greet them from within the jail’s D-Pod, an area reserved for active Norteño members.

According to a police report filed April 18 by Officer Derek Gibson, the recipients of the call were gathered at the Salinas Rodeo Grounds for a celebration of life for Frank Busane, who had recently succumbed to cancer. The report identifies each of nine men who greet Cruz as active SEM members, many of them wearing clothing with the letter “M,” signifying the Salinas East Market faction. “SEM gang members will commonly wear Minnesota Twins apparel, Milwaukee Brewers apparel, Miami Marlins apparel, as well as Monster energy drink clothing,” according to the police report. 

At roughly the seven-minute mark, the video shows Cruz talking to Israel Villa, program and policy coordinator for the Salinas-based MILPA Collective, a community group whose mission is to develop leadership skills of young men and women in the Salinas community. Many of its leaders, Villa among them, have been incarcerated.

The video shows Villa point to the “M” on his Miami Marlins hat; the symbol represents the SEM faction. He then puts his hand over his mouth and then quickly draws a finger across his neck. On his end of the call, Cruz, who up to that point had been cracking jokes and mugging for the camera, goes quiet and puts his hand over his mouth in response. Villa blows kisses at the camera, flashes the “5” and “0-0” signs at him, representing the 500 block of East Market Street where SEM originated, and the call continues as Cruz talks to other friends.

According to a Salinas police officer who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak about the video, Villa sent a message to Cruz with the hand gestures: “You snitch, you die.”

Asked by the Weekly about the video, Villa says, “I’m not gonna say nothing on the record. I haven’t seen it. I’m sure it’s going to cause quite the show.”

In his capacity working for MILPA, Villa routinely speaks to news outlets, including TV stations, about criminal justice reform.

According to the police report, a second, shorter video reveals a similar conversation between Cruz from within his cell and his brother and friends on the outside. When Villa appears, according to the report, “Cruz told him he needs to get off the TV, and Cruz called Villa ‘homie.’ Cruz stated, ‘Tell that nigga to get off the TV, it’s embarrassing, serio,’” according to Officer Gibson’s report. “I overheard Cruz tell Curry to tell Cholio [Villa] to get off the TV because he sees him on there too much. Cruz then stated, ‘We don’t need that shit, man.’” 

Salinas Police Assistant Chief Roberto Felice said the department does not have an active investigation into the video or any possible witness intimidation. It’s expected that tomorrow, on Oct. 17, the police will provide more information about the video and reports the department released. (The police report about the video calls from the jail was filed as “information only.”)

Paulino Guzman III was 18 when, in January 2016, his family reported him missing. According to the Salinas Police Department, investigators received information that same month that Guzman had been killed by Cruz. The revelation led to a months-long investigation that included interviewing witnesses, analyzing digital evidence and social media postings and issuing search warrants. 

From that, police pieced together the following story:

On Dec. 12, 2015, Guzman was at a house party at an apartment on North Main Street in Salinas. Cruz and other people affiliated with the Norteños were at the party as well. At some point that night, several attendees were cleaning their firearms, and Guzman was said to be holding a weapon, but not pointing it at anyone. 

Cruz took the weapon from Guzman’s hand, pointed it at his head from about three feet away and shot Guzman in the face. The bullet entered through his cheek and he died almost immediately.

While everyone in the apartment fled, one of Guzman’s friends made an anonymous call to 911 and reported the gunfire. 

The next day, Cruz and multiple other people returned to the apartment, placed Guzman’s body in a plastic tub and cleaned up the scene, ripping up the carpet in the area where Guzman was shot. The tub, with Guzman’s body, was taken away in a green car; Cruz, another man and a woman were seen in the car as it drove away from the apartment. The vehicle has never been located.

The landlord of the building entered the apartment at an unspecified date and found the carpet removed, along with bottles of cleaning solution and bags of torn carpet. Crime scene investigators matched blood samples from the scene to samples taken from Guzman’s family members. 

According to the press release issued by the Monterey County District Attorney’s Office on April 10, the day of Cruz’s sentencing hearing, Guzman’s stepmother spoke directly to Cruz at the sentencing hearing and told him while Guzman may have made poor choices, he had a family who loved and missed him and wanted his body back so they could give him a proper funeral. She had first come into Guzman’s life when he was 2 months old, she told Cruz, and Guzman began calling her “mom” by the time he was 5 years old. Monterey Superior Court Judge Andrew Liu also encouraged Cruz to give up the location of the body to provide the family closure, prompting the “no comment” response.

Cruz had pleaded guilty on Feb. 20 to one count of voluntary manslaughter with gang and firearm enhancements. On April 10, Liu sentenced Cruz to 35 years in prison.

In an interview with the Weekly last month, Villa spoke of his past and how his two best friends had been killed, one of them while still in the eighth grade. He said he’d done “horrible things” in his past, but was devoted to doing things differently.

“I had been playing with fire with the system for a long time,” Villa said. “I’ve never been spiritual, but I now believe in prayer. I know people are praying for me. I’ve done horrible things in that other lifestyle and now I believe in helping people. It’s what saved me.

“I’ve always been a fighter,” Villa said, “but now I’m fighting for something different and fighting for youth.” 

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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