Feds call Hoover gang a ‘virus of violence,’ while defense lawyers discredit cooperating witnesses as ‘liars, robbers and killers’

A federal prosecutor likened Portland’s Hoover gang to a contagious germ as the government wrapped up its final arguments in a five-week racketeering trial before jury deliberations began Friday.

“The Hoovers are like a virus — not like Covid, a cold or the flu, they’re a virus of violence,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Lewis Burkhart told jurors.

Prosecutors said Ronald Clayton “Big Fly” Rhodes, 37, and Lorenzo Laron “Low Down” Jones, 49, were two veteran gang members – “old homies” — who police have tied to three murders between the two of them, as well as other shootings, armed robberies and drug dealing.

Rhodes and Jones each face charges of racketeering conspiracy, murder in aid of racketeering and using a firearm in a crime of violence. A conviction on the murder charge would bring a mandatory life sentence.

Burkhart and Assistant U.S. Attorney Leah Bolstad characterized the men’s crimes — some dating back to the late ‘80s — as cold-blooded, calculated acts of retaliation done to increase their status in the gang.

“When Ronald Rhodes and Lorenzo Jones joined the Hoover gang, they knew exactly what they were getting into,” Burkhart said. “See a rival, shoot a rival.”

But defense lawyers said the government’s case was based on unreliable cooperating witnesses who hope to get time shaved off their own sentences or prison terms.

The lawyers highlighted the witnesses’ changing stories over time and what they described as “scripted” testimony to fit the government’s narrative at trial. They took prosecutors and FBI agents to task for failing to record most of the cooperating witnesses’ prior interviews with the government.

Four of the witnesses have pleaded guilty to the racketeering conspiracy.

Three of the witnesses had a death sentence hovering over them until it was taken off the table by Attorney General Merrick Garland in 2021, said Richard Wolf, Jones’ lawyer.

“The government has based its case on liars, robbers and killers,” Wolf said.

Police also attempted to tie Jones and Rhodes to crimes through the tracking of their cellphone locations and forensic examination of bullet casings or guns recovered.

Jurors heard from more than 100 witnesses, viewed crime scene photos and videos. One morning, they boarded a bus to examine the apartment complex scene of one of the killings in Southeast Portland.

U.S. District Judge Michael J. McShane said the 12-member jury won’t deliberate over the weekend and will resume Monday if they don’t reach a verdict Friday.


Prosecutors argued that Jones fatally shot Ascensio Genchi Garcia, 27, on July 19, 1998, to avenge an attack on a fellow Hoover who was struck in the head with a Corona beer bottle in a fight at an apartment complex in Southeast Portland.

Jones returned to the complex later, waited near one of the buildings for people involved in the fight to emerge and when they came out, he fired and emptied his clip, shooting Garcia in the head, prosecutors said.

Wolf countered that police and prosecutors have gone after the wrong man, that the actual shooter was the injured man’s brother, also a Hoover.

Wolf reminded jurors that the injured man, Rusty Rex Rean, testified as a cooperating witness, has a history of telling lies and acknowledged on the witness stand that he wouldn’t implicate his brother in a crime.

Jones also is accused in the Sept. 17, 2017, fatal shooting of Wilbert “Billy” Butler outside a Southeast Portland apartment complex after a fight during a party inside between one Hoover ally, Joel McCool, and several Crip gang members.

Jones and McCool “were working together to murder some rivals,” Burkhart said. Both fired shots, but Butler – McCool’s cousin – was not the intended target, he said. The intended target already had left the complex, he said. Police found 9mm shell casings and .40-caliber shell casings in two separate areas outside. Five months after the shooting, police seized a .40-caliber pistol from the home of Jones’ girlfriend. Casings from the Butler shooting scene were fired from the .40-caliber gun recovered, forensic analysts said.

Wolf said prosecutors failed to follow the victim’s dying declaration to a police officer.

Asked who had shot him while riding in an ambulance, Butler told the officer: “Cousin Jo Jo,” according to court testimony.

Jones was merely present at the shooting but not involved, Wolf argued.

Plus, he said, the cooperating witness who testified that Jones had confessed to him having shot Butler wasn’t at the scene and admitted to reading a bail hearing transcript in the case that Jones shared with him while the two were in jail.


Rhodes is accused of handing a gun to Hoover member Javier Hernandez and directing him to shoot at two men smoking outside a Plaid Pantry in Southeast Portland on Dec. 26, 2015. One of the men, Kyle Polk, 21, was killed.

The shooting, prosecutors said, was an attempt to get back at rivals after a Hoover leader was shot and wounded in downtown Portland two days earlier.

Benjamin Kim, who represents Rhodes, highlighted significant changes in Hernandez’s statements to police and prosecutors about the Polk shooting.

Hernandez, now 26, testified at the trial that he fired at two men who were smoking outside the Plaid Pantry from the front passenger seat of a white SUV driven by Rhodes. He said Rhodes gave him the gun and told him to shoot.

Moments before he fired, Hernandez testified, Rhodes asked the two men, “Hey Groove, where you from?” One of the men answered that he was from Oakland and wasn’t tied to a gang, Hernandez said. The other man said he was “60s” and threw up his gang signs, Hernandez said.

Yet in Hernandez’s first sit-down with investigators and prosecutors, he said Rhodes fired the gun that killed Polk.

Polk’s friend who was with him that day, Javonni Matthew, told police that the front passenger in the white SUV was the person who had questioned them and then fired.

Hernandez also testified at the trial that he looked up to Rhodes, who brought him under his wing and helped him start selling cocaine and heroin soon after he dropped out of Vancouver’s Evergreen High School.

Prosecutors repeatedly described Rhodes as Hernandez’s mentor, the one who gave Hernandez his street name, “Stoney Fly,” making him part of Rhodes’ so-called “Fly Family.”

Yet Kim played for jurors a recorded phone call that Hernandez placed from jail in 2017.

“She’s saying I was being mentored by an older gang member, but that’s not what it was … I can’t just lie like that,” Hernandez said on the call.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Leah Bolstad argued that even if jurors disregarded Hernandez’s testimony, there’s enough evidence to show Rhodes helped Hernandez commit the killing.

Bolstad said Rhodes drove Hernandez to the scene, stopped the car outside the Plaid Pantry and then had his girlfriend return the rental SUV and fled with Hernandez to Salem.

Prosecutors also didn’t deny that the cooperating witnesses have committed their own disturbing crimes.

“Who picked these horrible people?” Bolstad asked. “Those people are not nuns. They’ve done terrible things. But who picked them? … The Hoover criminal gang picked these witnesses.”

The defense lawyers argued that gang membership isn’t a crime.

Jones and Rhodes don’t deny their involvement in the Hoovers or that they sold drugs, but they had no coordinated agreement or organized enterprise that would support racketeering allegations, Wolf and Kim said.

Wolf called the racketeering statute a prosecutor’s “kid in the candy store” law, one that allows the government to pull in a host of alleged crimes to pin on someone that couldn’t be proven in state court due to lack of evidence.


In stark contrast to the cast of cooperating witnesses, the jury also heard from other witnesses who had no interest in assisting police or prosecutors.

None stood out more than Gary Smith, who goes by the street name “Goofy.”

He was subpoenaed to testify about the Butler killing. Butler was his cousin.

The 6-foot-5 Smith wore bright red sweatpants, a red wool hat and a gray sweatshirt, its hood pulled up over his hat as he took the witness stand.

He yawned repeatedly on the stand, leaned his arms on his knees and sometimes bent his head below the witness stand, drawing the judge’s admonition to sit up and speak into the microphone.

Smith identified himself as a member of the 6-Deuce Blood gang.

He said he walked out the door of the Kateri Park Apartment complex with Butler when shots were fired at them.

But he wouldn’t identify the shooter on the stand. Burkhart, the prosecutor, asked him if he remembered telling a grand jury that McCool was the gunman.

“I don’t remember,” Smith said, barely audibly. “I didn’t know who was firing. I just ran.’’

Burkhart asked Smith if he wanted to cooperate with police on the case of his cousin’s murder.

“No,” Smith said.

Butler’s sister shook her head as she watched from the courtroom’s public gallery.

“Why not?” Burkhart asked.

“I have my own reasons,” Smith said.

Burkhart asked him what those reasons were.

“I just have my own reasons. I told them there was a fight, a party, (expletive) happens,” Smith said.

— Maxine Bernstein

Email mbernstein@oregonian.com; 503-221-8212

Follow on Twitter @maxoregonian

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