For the last three weeks the racketeering trial of former Bandidos Motorcycle Club national officers Jeffrey Pike and John Portillo has been dominated by the dramatic testimony of three alleged eyewitnesses to four old murders.
The witnesses were two ex-Bandidos, Johnny Romo and his brother Robert Romo and a former meth addict and prostitute named Magenta Winans.
The Romo brothers claim to have murdered a drug dealer named Anthony W. Benesh III as he emerged from an Austin restaurant with his family on March 18, 2006. Both the Romos describe the murder as a military style assassination that included walkie-talkies. Robert Romo wept as he confessed to killing Benesh with a hunting rifle. Federal prosecutors claim Portillo and Pike ordered the murder because he was trying to start a Hells Angels charter in Texas.
The story seems to be a tissue of assumptions and outright lies. It doesn’t seem likely that Benesh was actually a Hells Angel. He spent most of his life from childhood in Texas. There doesn’t seem to be any indication that he had any direct contact with any Hells Angels.
If he had been trying to start an Angels charter in Texas it is absolutely certain that he first would have prospected for a year or so with a charter in California and the prosecutors have offered no proof that Benesh ever visited California. There is no reason to think that the Bandidos club officers would have been sufficiently worried about Benesh to actually kill him as opposed to pouring sugar in his gas tank.
It was an atypical biker murder. These things, like a couple of recent murders in Florida or a widely publicized murder in Australia, usually happen face to face. The hit, as described by the Romos, seems overtly melodramatic. And the accusation omits substantiating details about the murder plot’s plausibility. Like whether Robert Romo had practiced with the rifle, When and where did he zero in the sights? And where and when did he buy the bullets? And, where is the rifle now?
Daily, the Romos sound more and more like Sammy “The Bull” Gravano.
Winans told jurors a story that Ross MacDonald might have imagined about old murders. Portillo has been accused of being an accomplice in two of them but right now he is only accused of being an accomplice in one.
Winans, got to know the Bandidos in San Antonio in 2001 through a boxer, former International Boxing Federation super flyweight champion Robert Quiroga, who was a friend of the club. Quiroga introduced her to Portillo, who was president of the Southwest San Antonio chapter, and former Bandidos Richard Merla and Andrew Gomez, She had an affair with Gomez. Late that year, another chapter member named Javier Negrete was shot and killed outside a pool hall by a street gangster named Robert Lara.
According to Winans, Portillo wanted revenge and, improbably – because of her relative newness and strangeness to the club – he asked her to help. He asked her to become Lara’s friend and she said, “Sure.”
In January 2002 she somehow enticed Lara to a dark and deserted rest stop off Interstate 37 south of San Antonio. Somehow she enticed him to turn off the engine. He may have been distracted when two Bandidos, Merla and a new character named Frederick Cortez pulled Lara from the car and shot him 11 times. Portillo was so appreciative of Winans’ help that he authorized her to get a “property of” the Bandidos tattoo on her hip.
Then Merla Kills Quiroga
She remained a friend of the Bandidos until the night in August 2004 when Merla and Robert Quiroga were playing cards. The two men got into an argument over a Scarface poster and Merla stabbed the former boxer to death. Merla was kicked out the motorcycle club. It was Portillo’s idea. He issued a statement that read, “This was not an action of our club. We do not condone this. This was the act of a coward that is no longer a member of this motorcycle club.” Merla resented the cold shoulder.
Winans was arrested on a drug charge in 2006 and Portillo, who by then was a club national officer, got her a lawyer and helped her. When she was arrested again in 2007, she began cooperating with federal agents. She seems to have led them to Merla, who had killed her good friend Quiroga. Merla, who was already serving a 40 year sentence for Quiroga’s murder confessed to killing Lara in April 2007. Winans then went into hibernation for 11 years.
But Merla decided to get some of his years back and settle some old scores. The next year he appeared on a television program called Gangland. Gangland was cablecast on the History Channel. The episode in which Merla appeared was called “Bandido Army” and according to documents filed in a civil suit by former agent Jay Dobyns against the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, that episode was practically sponsored by the ATF. The first airing of the episode was on October 17, 2008 – more than seven years ago.
The Criminal Conspiracy
“We had different meetings how we’re going to do it, when we’re going to do it, blah, blah, blah, and who, who can we trust,” Merla said on camera.
The show’s narrator explains, “Months after Negrete’s murder, Merla and a group of four accomplices pulled into a rest stop south of the city. It was an elaborate set-up. Lara had arrived moments earlier with a woman, who was actually part of the plan.”
“We already know what she’s driving,” Merla said on television. “So me and another Bandido got out of the truck and went straight to his car.”
Forty-five minutes into the hour-long show, Gangland began to unload on Portillo.
“Merla claims the Bandidos broke their own code and ratted him out for an earlier murder, the 2002 rest stop killing of Roberto Lara, the man Merla shot 11 times in retaliation for a Bandido’s death.”
“I took the rap, took all the rap,” Merla says.
The narrator says, “Merla claimed he was simply following the orders issued by (chapter) president John Portillo when he shot Lara.”
“He had his sources,” Merla told America, “and when he came to me, he said, ‘that’s the guy.’ I knew what he wanted done. He didn’t want no black eyes and broken noses, teeth missing. And I took care of it.”
The narrator tells the audience, “Merla says only Portillo had the authority to order the hit…. Portillo has refused numerous interview requests. He adamantly denies ordering the murder and hasn’t been charged with any crime.”
“If I wanted to,” Merla explains, “I could have been like them, snitches, but it’s against my own personal beliefs is pointing the finger at other people. And, they know it. They know it.”
Now, almost ten years after the Gangland episode, after everybody has had time to rehearse and polish the parts they are playing and the words they have been told to say, long after the world has almost stopped missing the men who died, Magenta Winans just dared John Portillo to try to prove his innocence.