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Former Latin Kings gang defendants now seeking civil damages

TAMPA — For nearly two years, the 12 men and women fought charges of racketeering and accusations that they were members of the Latin Kings gang.

Now, cleared of wrongdoing, they are suing the agencies that investigated them.

In lawsuits filed in federal court this month, the former defendants say their constitutional rights to be free from unreasonable seizure and malicious prosecution were violated.

Some saw this legal action coming as far back as 2008, when the charges were dropped. Hillsborough Circuit Judge Daniel Sleet dismissed many of the cases, citing "outrageous" conduct by a police confidential informant.

In 2006, more than 100 officers from at least six agencies raided a meeting at the Caribbean American Club and arrested 52 people on racketeering charges. The bust culminated a 15-month investigation into the Latin Kings.

The meeting was planned by Luis "Danny" Agosto, a felon whom the FBI and Tampa police used as an informant.

But Agosto's involvement led to the unraveling of most of the racketeering cases.

Sleet determined the gang had been dormant for several months before Agosto revived it as part of his work as an informant. Authorities stood back as he threatened violence against people if they didn't attend meetings, the judge found.

Sleet heard testimony that Agosto's police handlers did little to stop him as he stole motorcycles, drove without a license, possessed a firearm and distributed counterfeit money.

Even after they discovered he had been committing crimes, they continued to pay him $2,400 a month, evidence showed.

One of the men arrested, Mitchell Bernier, spent 152 days in jail. He lost his job as an assistant manager at Walgreens, and his wife left him. After his charges were dropped in 2008, he sought therapy for depression and told a reporter that "a lot of people's lives were ruined."

Bernier is one of the people seeking damages in federal court.

Complaints filed during the past two weeks state that law enforcement had no probable cause to make the arrests. The plaintiffs' attorney, Kim Kohn, said Friday that she was not ready to make a statement yet.

The defendants listed in the lawsuits are the FBI, Hillsborough County and the city of Tampa, as well as Tampa police Officer Matthew Zalansky and Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office Detective William Gergel.

Zalansky and Gergel worked on the Latin Kings investigation. Both are still employed at their respective agencies.

Officials from the FBI and Tampa police declined to comment, saying they're not allowed to discuss pending litigation.

Hillsborough County attorney Stephen Todd said the county should not be listed as a defendant. Any complaints should be taken up with the Sheriff's Office, he said.

Sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter said, "We've read the lawsuit, and we look forward to defending our detective and our agency in court."

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3433.

Former Latin Kings gang defendants now seeking civil damages 08/20/10 [Last modified: Saturday, August 21, 2010 12:36am]

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