Pierce County prosecutors contend a prison inmate helped orchestrate the killing of a Tacoma gang leader earlier this year so he could ascend to the top of the organization once released.
Prosecutors charged Moises Angel Larreinaga, 22, and three other men this week with conspiracy to commit first-degree murder in the shooting death of Juan Zuniga, 26.
Tacoma police detectives arrested Larreinaga Thursday at the state penitentiary in Monroe. He’s now in the Pierce County Jail and is set to be arraigned Monday, deputy prosecutor Phil Sorensen said.
Zuniga was leader of the Eastside Loco Sureños street gang, which is thought responsible for three homicides in Tacoma this year.
Prosecutors wrote in court documents that two fellow gang members, 18-year-old Juan Ortiz and 15-year-old Naitaalii Toleafoa , shot Zuniga and another man May 12 at a West End home.
Ortiz and Toleafoa remain at large and are believed to be in California or Mexico.
Ortiz, Toleafoa, Carlos R. Basilio, Alfredo Villagomez Felices and Antonio Gonzalez Vasquez all are charged with first-degree murder and first-degree assault in the shooting.
Basilio, 23; Felices, 20; and Vasquez, 24; are charged as accomplices. They’ve pleaded not guilty. Prosecutors allege they provided Ortiz and Toleafoa transportation before and after the shootings.
Sorensen said the five also might face conspiracy counts.
Zuniga apparently fell out of favor with his subordinates earlier this year, detectives Dan Davis and Steve Reopelle said recently.
Zuniga refused to divvy up proceeds from a burglary, ordered subordinates to do his personal chores and otherwise mistreated members of his gang, detectives said.
He also declined to provide money to the families of gang members locked up in prison, including Ortiz’s brother, Pablo, Davis and Reopelle said.
“The guys on the outside are getting disrespected, and the prison guys are not getting their money,” Reopelle said.
Juan Ortiz and Toleafoa were identified as the shooters not long after Zuniga died, but Davis and Reopelle said they thought the two wouldn’t have assassinated the gang’s leader without direction from more experienced members.
“It never sat right,” Reopelle said.
The detectives listened to hours of recorded prison phone calls as part of their investigation.
In them, Larreinaga and fellow inmates and suspected Eastside Loco Sureños members Pablo Ortiz, 27; Abel Espinosa Gonzalez, 28; and Ruben Cervantes Rios, 32; are heard telling people on the outside “they were aware of issues surrounding Zuniga’s leadership and their agreement that a change was needed,” court records state.
State corrections officers and Tacoma police detectives also seized letters in which the inmates express their “dissatisfaction with Zuniga’s leadership of the gang and make reference to taking action,” the records show.
“In addition, the correspondence outlines significant expectations for Larreinaga upon his release in December 2010,” the records state.
Detectives interviewed Larreinaga in prison last month.
“Larreinaga denied that he intended to play a leadership role within the ELS upon release,” court documents state. “While in prison, however, Larreinaga acquired a large ELS tattoo that occupies the majority of his chest.”
Prosecutors have sought court orders asking that Larreinaga and the other prison inmates be transferred to Pierce County to answer the charges.
Davis and Reopelle said they hope the conspiracy case hinders the gang’s ability to operate.
“These guys are just brutally violent,” Davis said. “To take these guys out, we are going to make a nice dent.”