One of the key events in the ATF undercover investigation of the Mongols Motorcycle Club was a shooting in the parking lot of an upscale topless bar named Nicola’s at 960 South Gerhart Avenue, near Whittier Boulevard, in Commerce, California.
The shooting was the result of an altercation at about 2:15 am on April 8, 2007 between two Mongols and members of an East LA street clique named Gage Maravilla. There were at least 79 witnesses. The LA County Sheriff’s Deputies who responded to the shooting filled out 77 Field Interview Cards. The other two witnesses were ATF Special Agent John Ciccone and his frequent sidekick, a Montebello cop and ATF Tactical Field Officer named Chris Cervantes. For the next 18 months both Ciccone and Cervantes testified about the incident to grand jurors and judges. The incident was integral to convincing impartial observers that the Mongols Motorcycle Club was a criminal conspiracy that furthered its criminal aims with calculated violence.
Facts about the shooting, which have never been stated publically before, belie official statements and suggest that both Ciccone and Cervantes perjured themselves in testimony about the case and that both men were guilty of gross dereliction of duty on the night of the shooting.
Maldonado And Gaioni
A Mongol named Denis Frank “Steaky” Maldonado, Jr. was accused of the shooting. Maldonado was sentenced to 12 years and six months in prison after he was found guilty of a state charge that resulted from the incident and a federal charge of racketeering that held Maldonado and the Mongols responsible for the shooting. It was Maldonado’s second federal charge. Maldonado had previously been accused of violating a law that prohibits a person who has been convicted of domestic violence from owning a firearm. And, Maldonado’s arrest for the Nicola’s shooting was, at the least, lucky for Ciccone.
Maldonado had been charged in the earlier weapons case by ATF Special Agent Gregory Gaioni. Gaioni was one of four male undercover agents who gathered evidence of crimes during Operation Black Rain. Gaioni later patched with the Mongols.
At exactly the same time that Maldonado was conveniently charged with shooting “a rival gang member” Gaioni was attempting to infiltrate the club with the help of a paid informant named T.J. Stansbury in Ventura. Everyone involved in Operation Black Rain, including Assistant United States Attorney Christopher Brunwin, knew that Maldonado and Gaioni had previously crossed paths and that Maldonado’s freedom jeopardized the continuation of the undercover operation.
Nicola’s, Nicola’s, Nicola’s
The shooting at Nicola’s became prominent in the list of Mongols’ atrocities that were used to justify the long and expensive investigation.
Seven months after the shooting, in a sworn declaration on November 7, 2007, Ciccone stated under oath: “…based on my training, experience and knowledge of the facts of the investigation, I believe that (Ruben Doc) Cavazos and (Hector Largo) Gonzalez were discussing arrangements for the Mongols to pay an attorney to represent Maldonado. As discussed prior, Maldonado is a Mongols gang member who shot two rival Gage Maravilla gang members on April 8, 2007. Maldonado was rewarded for the attack….”
As part of the undercover investigation, a report of investigation (Black Rain ROI 522 dated March 3, 2008) also described the circumstances of the shooting. The ROI was written by John Ciccone on behalf of Greg Gaioni and reported gossip that Gaioni claimed he had been told by ATF undercover agent Darrin Kozlowski. The ROI omits the presence of Ciccone and Cervantes at the scene as eyewitnesses.
The shooting was also the subject of testimony given by Cervantes on March 4, 2008, the day after Ciccone finished typing Black Rain ROI 522.
In The Indictment
The shooting is mentioned three times in the indictment that commenced the federal racketeering case United States versus Cavazos et al.
“On April 8, 2007, defendant MALDONADO shot M.G. and Z.S. at the Nicola’s bar in Los Angeles, California.”
“On April 8, 2007, defendants MUNZ, SHAWLEY, and ROSELI, and other unidentified Mongols members drove defendant MALDONADO to San Diego, California, in order to prevent MALDONADO from being identified and apprehended by law enforcement after MALDONADO shot two victims at the Nicola’s bar in Los Angeles.”
“On April 10, 2007, defendant CAVAZOS led a Mongols Presidents and Sergeant-at-Arms Meeting in Los Angeles, California, and directed Mongols members to prepare for retaliation from rival Maravilla gang members in response to the April 8, 2007 shooting at the Nicola’s bar and also addressed similar confrontations between the Mongols and the Mexican Mafia.”
Cervantes told the judge at the preliminary hearing that he had no idea that a gunfight was about to erupt. Cervantes testified that he remained “in the car.” He testified that his first indication that trouble was brewing was when he “saw hands waving in the air like an argument.” Then, without warning he heard “several shots.”
Complaints Of Misconduct and Perjury
The official accounts of what happened in Nicola’s parking lot that night have remained mostly secret. After Maldonado was charged with racketeering in the Cavazos’ case, Assistant US Attorney Brunwin refused to give Maldonado’s attorney access to “statements made by cooperating co-defendants and a cooperating witness” and a “list of witnesses” to the shooting.
The Aging Rebel has learned the identity of numerous witnesses to the shooting. Some of those witnesses have complained to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department about official accounts of the incident. Those witnesses have complained that they were not allowed to file sworn statements about the shooting.
One eyewitness did file a formal complaint with the Montebello Police Department on November 8, 2011 about the conduct of Tactical Field Officer Cervantes immediately before and during the shooting. The witness filed the complaint with Montebello Detective Lieutenant Michael Bergman and was told by Bergman that the witness was placing himself in legal jeopardy by doing so.
The Aging Rebel is withholding the names of sources for this story. Those sources have expressed concerns about retaliation by the police forces involved.
Nicola’s Confidential Source
By April 2007, Ciccone and Cervantes were already regularly “debriefing” an unpaid, “confidential source” who had agreed to spy on numerous Mongols, including Doc Cavazos, his son Ruben Cavazos, Jr. and Maldonado, on behalf of the ATF. The source was a dancer at the club who had been arrested for possession of methamphetamine. At the time of the shooting, the confidential source was dating Ruben Cavazos, Jr.
Consequently, both Ciccone and Cervantes were known to be police officers to numerous employees at the club including the club’s security guards and were observed by those guards as they sat in a parked car and surveilled the parking lot of Nicola’s on the night of the shooting.
The argument between the combatants started inside the club. “The Maravilla called out” another Mongol. The Aging Rebel has verified the name of that Mongol and is withholding it. “The parking lot was crowded because the nightclub was closing,” a source said. As the Mongols emerged from the club Ciccone and Cervantes got out of their car and watched. Cervantes later testified that he was “35 feet,” about two car lengths, from the combatants.
“I was standing right next to the security guards,” a source said. “They had guns and they were wearing bullet proof vests. I asked them why they didn’t stop the argument and they said the cops would take care of it. They pointed at Ciccone and Cervantes.”
According to a source, the Maravilla member pulled a knife on the Mongol not named in this story. That Mongol then pulled a gun in self defense. Another Maravilla member then pulled his own gun and shot the unnamed Mongol. Maldonado then pulled his own gun and shot the Maravilla gunman. Ciccone has testified on multiple occasions that the shooting left the Maravilla victim “in a wheelchair.”
“Ciccone and Cervantes just stood there and watched,” a witness said. “They could have stopped it. Everybody…the security guards…thought they would. Everybody knew who they were. I don’t know why they just stood there and didn’t do anything. They were standing right there.”