OAKLAND -- A reputed leader of the Nuestra Familia prison gang has been indicted in federal court on two counts of murder and other charges for the deaths of two people who were found in a burning apartment in Oakland in September 2011.
Henry Cervantes, 48, is charged with two counts of murder in aid of racketeering, conspiracy to commit murder in aid of racketeering, racketeering conspiracy, conspiracy to commit assault with a dangerous weapon and using a fire to commit a felony.
In addition, Cervantes, known as "Happy," is charged with use of a firearm to further a crime of violence, conspiracy to obstruct justice, obstruction of justice, and destruction of an object to obstruct an investigation.
Cervantes, who could face the death penalty if he's convicted, was indicted on Jan. 8. Ten other defendants were originally indicted on Nov. 6 and then named again in the superseding indictment on Jan. 8.
The murder charges stem from the deaths of John Gilbert Navaerette, 73, and 56-year-old Renee Washington, whose bodies were found when firefighters responded to a blaze at a two-story building in the 3100 block of Coolidge Avenue at about 1 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2011.
Navaerette and Washington were found inside a residential unit on the second floor. Their bodies were so disfigured that authorities initially were unable to identify them.
An autopsy later revealed that Navaerette and Washington suffered multiple stab wounds and authorities said they believed the fire was set to cover up the crime.
Navaerette was a heroin addict who had been convicted of second-degree murder in Alameda County Superior Court on May 22, 1981, for fatally shooting Neil Wesley in the vicinity of 23rd Avenue and East 12th Street in Oakland to support his heroin habit, according to court records.
Navaerette was paroled on April 8, 2010, was returned to state prison on Dec. 21, 2010, after he was arrested on an undisclosed matter, and was paroled again on Jan. 21, 2011.
The Alameda County District Attorney's Office charged Cervantes with two counts of murder in October 2011 for the deaths of Navaerette and Washington, but Superior Court Judge Carrie Panetta dismissed those charges on Monday at the request of the district attorney's office, which said it will no longer prosecute Cervantes in the wake of the federal indictment.
District attorney spokeswoman Teresa Drenick on Tuesday declined to comment on why her office is letting the U.S. attorney's office prosecute the case.
The federal indictment alleges that by 2011 Cervantes became the regiment commander for the Nuestra Familia in Oakland and on Sept. 9, 2011, in the vicinity of Coolidge Avenue he fatally stabbed two men with a kitchen knife in furtherance of the prison gang.
The indictment, which doesn't specifically name Navaerette and Washington, said one of the victims "had dropped out of the Nortenos criminal organization."
The Nortenos gang is an affiliate of the Nuestra Familia, according to the indictment.
The indictment alleges that Cervantes enlisted reputed Nortenos members Shane Bowman and Jaime Cervantes to destroy evidence at the murder scene and that on Sept. 10, 2011, Bowman, Jaime Cervantes and a third reputed Nortenos associate, Richard Martinez, set fire to the apartment on Coolidge Avenue "to destroy evidence from the double murder committed the previous day by Henry Cervantes."
Other defendants who have been charged are Alberto Larez, Karl Gray, Peter Cuen, Richie Michelson, Rudy Martinez, Elias Gonzales and Peggy Larez.
Henry Cervantes is the only defendant charged with murder in aid of racketeering.
Among the charges against the other defendants are conspiracy to commit murder in aid of racketeering, racketeering conspiracy and obstruction of justice.
The indictment alleges that Nuestra Familia members commit crimes such as narcotics trafficking, robbery and murder.
Cervantes' attorney, John Philipsborn, declined to comment directly on the charges today, saying only that, "We're going to investigate this case the same as the last case."
Philipsborn said Cervantes had also potentially faced the death penalty in a federal case that was filed against him in 2000, but in 2004 he was convicted of a lesser charge of conspiracy to conduct the affairs of an enterprise through a pattern of racketeering activity and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Cervantes was released from custody in April 2010.
Cervantes was arraigned in federal court in Oakland on Jan. 17 and is scheduled to return to court on Feb. 14 for a status hearing.
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