CHARLOTTE, NC (Jane Wester/Charlotte Observer) - In Charlotte federal court Thursday, James Baxton and Pedro Gutierrez looked like any businessmen who'd just stepped out for lunch. Button-down shirts, ties, glasses.
Prosecutors were quick to draw parallels between the two men and big business on Thursday, starting in opening arguments for their interstate racketeering trial.
"They are the CEOs, the presidents, the supervisors, the managers of the Bloods," one prosecutor said.
The CEO comparison is especially appropriate for Gutierrez, prosecutors said.
He's allegedly the chairman of the council of the United Blood Nation, giving him final say over activities of the "violent, criminal street gang" up and down the East Coast, a prosecutor said. Baxton is allegedly one of his top associates.
Both men have been in New York state prisons for 25 years, but prosecutors say that didn't stop them from controlling criminal activity in Charlotte and elsewhere through the gang's elaborate and carefully organized hierarchy.
In opening arguments and testimony Thursday, prosecutors introduced the jury to the language and rules of the Bloods.
Members use nicknames, sometimes more than one. Gutierrez was introduced as Magoo, Light, Inferno. Baxton goes by Grown or Frank White, according to court documents.
They had a Florida associate nicknamed Bandana, a man in Raleigh called Hardbody and a Charlotte subordinate named Dripz, prosecutors said.
Murder is discussed through code, prosecutors said.
If the Bloods want to kill someone, they're "marked as food" or put "on the plate."
If members break one of the organization's 31 rules by cooperating with law enforcement, prosecutors said, they join a "worldwide menu" of people marked for death.
If a Blood runs into someone on the worldwide menu, retaliation is not optional — they have to "eat the food or be the food," prosecutors said.
The Bloods contain various "sets" or sub-groups, led by a "Godfather" with a leadership structure beneath him: top officers are called "highs," followed by "lows" and, under them, a line of generals with one-star to five-star rankings.
Gutierrez and Baxton are allegedly leaders of the Nine Trey Gangsters, a powerful set with operations in Charlotte, Raleigh and elsewhere, prosecutors said. In March, the Department of Justice announced that 35 members of the Nine Trey Gangsters pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy and other charges.
One defendant, Cynthia Gilmore, declined an offer for a plea deal. She appeared in court alongside Gutierrez and Baxton Thursday.
Records presented in court showed Gilmore sent Gutierrez thousands of dollars while he was in prison in New York.
Her lawyer said a shared interest in nursing — she's a registered nurse's aide, he said, and Gutierrez studied nursing in prison — led to their friendship.
"She has the money to support a family, although it's a struggle," her lawyer said. "She has the money to give to a friend in need — including Mr. Gutierrez."
In testimony Thursday, FBI Special Agent Chad Pupillo said he and other investigators found that Gilmore was a high-ranking member of the Nine Trey Gangsters, part of the chain that distributed low-ranking members' dues up to gang leaders.
Investigators found that Gilmore visited Gutierrez in prison and discussed gang business with him there, according to an indictment.
Like Gutierrez and Baxton, Gilmore wore ordinary clothes and no handcuffs in court. The trio's casual appearance contrasted with the security concerns surrounding the case.
Before opening arguments, Gutierrez' lawyer complained that he hadn't been able to meet with his client after jury selection Wednesday or before court Thursday.
Chief District Judge Frank Whitney said defendants and witnesses in this case have to be kept apart for security reasons, so they're scattered throughout western North Carolina. Gutierrez is traveling in each day from Caldwell County.
"Your client in particular — because of his alleged position — knows a lot of people," he said.
The three defense lawyers made repeated objections during Pupillo's testimony Thursday. When Whitney and the lawyers retreated to a corner of the courtroom to discuss some of their concerns, Baxton and Gutierrez leaned toward each other to chat.