Did prison change Levy trial's star witness for the better?

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 27, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Armando Morales is a man in transit, destination unknown.

The 49-year-old Fresno native provided the key testimony that helped convict Ingmar Guandique of killing Chandra Levy. Jurors believed the former Fresno Bulldogs gang member when he said Guandique confessed to him while they were cellmates.

Implicitly, jurors also believed Morales when he testified he was turning his life around. He'd left the gang life, he said. For a man with a disorderly past, this earned him the kind of credibility he'd never had before.

"He was just a street thug," Fresno-area federal prosecutor Duce Rice said in an interview. "He hurt a lot of people."

Now, other prosecutors believe, Morales exemplifies that rarest of creatures: a career criminal gone good. If he survives his next six years in federal prison, and the temptations to come, he could become the face of redemption.

"What Mr. Morales has done is hard," Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Haines told jurors. She added, almost plaintively, "Can't it be that prison has worked for just one person?"

One former Fresno-area gang member, speaking on condition of anonymity because of concerns over safety, characterized Morales as pretty resourceful and as "a smart guy (who) knows how to manipulate people."

Guandique's defense attorney, Santha Sonenberg, saw an even darker side to Morales' intelligence.

"Mr. Morales is a pretty smart guy," Sonenberg said, suggesting Morales tailored his testimony to win law enforcement's favor. "(He's) smart enough to know how to take batteries and make a fire in order to make a (prison) shank."

Morales now prefers to keep a low profile, said a Washington police detective, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss an ongoing case. His current status within the federal Bureau of Prisons is in transit, according to the agency's inmate locator.

In the weeks leading up to his Nov. 4 trial testimony, Morales was in the Pamunkey regional jail in Hanover, Va., a two-hour drive from Washington. The rural, 435-inmate jail was a far cry from Folsom prison and U.S. Penitentiary Big Sandy in Kentucky, which have been among the stopping points on Morales' prior path.

Morales was born small in 1961, a premature child who some knew as "Mousie." To others, he was "Mariachi." He dropped out of school in the sixth grade. He held some legitimate jobs, as a roofer and as a cook.

Mostly, though, he was a gangbanger with myriad aliases. Morales sold drugs and, he says, served as "head of security" for his gang. He explained that he would be called into action "if anything needed to be done, any stabbing, any violence." His convictions include escape, assault with a firearm and assault on a custodial officer.

Morales tried to coordinate and centralize the Bulldogs into what some called the Bulldog Nation. The effort failed, Fresno Police Detective Ricardo Gonzalez said last week. Gonzalez said there are about 4,500 confirmed Bulldogs members throughout Fresno County.

In 1996, as an assistant U.S. attorney, Rice prosecuted Morales on drug and weapons charges after an undercover investigation by federal agents and the Fresno County Sheriff's Department. Morales was charged with conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine and crack cocaine, as well as being a felon in possession of firearms. After Morales pleaded guilty, U.S. District Judge Robert Coyle sentenced him to a prison term that expires Aug. 5, 2016.

In time, Morales said, he began avoiding trouble. He made it to the medium-security federal prison in Coleman, Fla., where he enrolled in a skills-training program.

Gonzalez cautioned that while "there are a lot of dropouts" from the Bulldogs, many still associate with their old cronies. They do not necessarily become thoroughly upstanding citizens.

Morales, though, summoned for jurors the memory of what happened in December 2008, when family members visited for the first time in 14 years. They spoke, he said, of change, forgiveness. He became ready, he said, to tell authorities about what Ingmar Guandique once confessed, about the death of Chandra Levy.

"I no longer subscribed to those prison philosophies," Morales told the jury. "I don't seek my homeboys' approval anymore."

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