October 8, 2014, was an unusually warm fall day in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. The Indian summer day was unique in more than one way. It was rare to see the Chaffee County Court House surrounded by extra security. The reason for the extra precaution was to prevent violence that could be prompted by a gang related court hearing being conducted inside the modest town courthouse.
Philip Saldana and Thomas Mercado were being charged with murdering a fellow inmate in March 2013. The duo went before Judge Charles Barton, Chief of the 11th Judicial District, Colorado. Saldana and Mercado reside at the Buena Vista Correctional Complex in Buena Vista, Colorado.
The purpose of the hearing was to determine if Saldana and Mercado were gang members. Expert witnesses, who were familiar with gang member identification were questioned by the prosecution. The reason for this phase of the testimony was to confirm that the assault on another inmate inside the complex that resulted in death was gang related.
Expert witness Detective Chad Jeffries of the Pueblo Police Department explained that gang members are identified by clothing and tattoos. Since the defendants were clad in prison attire, tattoos were the only identifying factor. Jefferies established that Saldana and Mercado’s tattoos coincided with the Eastside Dukes, a Pueblo, Colorado gang affiliated with the nationwide Surenos gang.
The Surenos are the largest gang in the Department of Corrections. They were originally formed in Southern California but have expanded across the country. The Surenos are a loose affiliation of many different Hispanic gangs that don’t exhibit much of a hierarchy. When Surenos are processed into the prison system they immediately associate with other Surenos.
Jefferies also clarified that the inmate who was assaulted, Gene Casados, was a known member of the Aces, a home town Pueblo gang and rival to the Surenos.
The Eastside Dukes and the Aces existence in Pueblo both date back 20 years. Jeffries claimed there are more than 42 different gangs his department has recognized in the Pueblo area and 2,000 gang members.
During inmate processing they undergo a point-based screening system in an effort to prevent gang related assaults. The Surenos are one of the gangs that pose a threat to classified rival groups. Inmates are separated according to group affiliation as a security measure.
According to Colorado Department of Corrections Intelligence Sgt. Desmond Manning who was employed by the Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center, where all convicted felons are processed, both Saldana and Mercado were screened as Surenos-affiliated gang members. With that said, this information did not look good for the defendants.
Saldana and Mercado’s public defense team contested the gang related allegations by prosecuting investigators due to insufficient proof that gang affiliated letters sent to the defendants were written by other gang members. Also, the courts did not have copies of the alleged letters as evidence.
The prosecution maintained their expert’s insistence that the number 13 tattooed on a Colorado Department of Corrections inmate was consistent with Surenos gang affiliation. The prosecution’s expert witness was Chief Investigator Tino Herrera of the Department of Corrections.
The grim reality of this situation was that families on both sides of the gang related incidence were significantly affected by the chain of events that led to the hearing.
The Casados family endured months of uncertainty while their loved one lay motionless on life support before making the excruciating decision to release him from life support. Rumor had it the Casados family planned to sue the Colorado Department of Corrections for security negligence, which they believe contributed to their son’s eventual death.
Inside sources claimed one of the defendants, Mr. Mercado had completed his GED during his stay at the Buena Vista Correctional Facility and was scheduled to be released the day after the assault that got him charged with murder occurred.
Saldana ws scheduled for trial at 8 a.m. Jan. 26. However, his attorneys said they would likely file a motion for continuance. Mercado will appear for trial at 8 a.m. Dec. 1.