Jessie Con-Ui: Troubled youth to ruthless thug
Jessie Con-ui started drinking at 12 and killing at 25.
Con-ui - the inmate implicated in a fatal attack on a correctional officer at United States Penitentiary at Canaan three weeks ago - lured a gang rival into an execution outside an East Phoenix, Ariz., laundry facility in 2002; acted as the enforcer in a major drug trafficking operation; and, while in jail in 2007 and 2008, aided the gang's distribution of drugs and proceeds from drug sales.
The execution, law enforcement officials said, afforded Con-ui "solidarity" and "good standing" within the violent New Mexican Mafia gang and added a signature offense to his already unsavory résumé of car thefts, alcoholism and drug addiction. The gang, notorious in the southwest for its ruthless violence, became like a second family for Con-ui, a scrappy Filipino immigrant whose closest relatives appeared to distance themselves from him as he descended into a life of crime.
Police reports, presentence investigations and other records prepared by state and federal prosecutors include repeated mentions of the now 36-year-old Con-ui's involvement with the New Mexican Mafia. His role as an armed guard in the gang's trade of cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine in the early 2000s led to an 11-year federal prison sentence and his eventual transfer to Canaan.
Con-ui arrived at the prison, in Wayne County, in October 2011 after stops at three other federal penitentiaries, including the U.S. Penitentiary at Victorville, in Adelanto, Calif. - about 358 miles from Phoenix. A former federal prison warden said the frequency of Con-ui's transfers and the distance between Canaan and Phoenix - more than 2,300 miles - indicated his propensity for disobedience transcended his time in the federal prison system.
"This inmate, I would presume, had some disciplinary issues," the former warden said. "He's doing time in Northeastern Pennsylvania. That tells me he's been a management problem. A part of the discipline is to ship him far away from home."
Correctional officer Eric Williams, 34, of Nanticoke, died after Con-ui allegedly blindsided and attacked him as he made his rounds for nightly lockdown between 9:45 and 10 p.m. on Feb. 25. The 5-foot-9, 140-pound Con-ui allegedly hurled the taller, bulkier guard down a set of steps and pounced, beating him and repeatedly stabbing him with a shank.
Con-ui had been scheduled to complete his federal sentence in September and would have immediately been returned to Arizona to begin serving his life term for the 2002 murder - a consideration the former federal prison warden said he might have feared.
"It could be he was in trouble internally with his gang and didn't want to go home, didn't want to get killed," the former warden said. "To assure himself, he never went back to Arizona, he killed a federal officer. Maybe, he's thinking he doesn't want to be anywhere near his home turf."
After Williams' death, prison officials swiftly transferred Con-ui to a high-security prison in Allenwood, Union County.
If convicted, Con-ui could face the death penalty.
A collision course
Con-ui's journey began in Angeles City in the Philippines.
He lived there for 10 years before his mother, Teresita, and stepfather, Gary Sliney, moved him and his family to Rome, N.Y. - a three-hour drive up Interstate 81 from Williams' hometown of Nanticoke.
Sliney, a member of the U.S. Air Force, was stationed at the since-repurposed Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, according to his Facebook profile.
He retired in October 1993 after serving in the Gulf War.
Con-ui's older brother, Jamie, graduated from Rome Free Academy in 1993 and the family moved to Arizona a year later.
Con-ui, already heavy into alcohol and drugs, continued his education at Sliney's alma mater, Coronado High School in Scottsdale, Ariz., but dropped out after the eighth grade, according to presentence investigations for the 1995 thefts and 2002 murder.
Con-ui would have been 17 at the time of the move to Arizona - the age of a high school senior. It is unclear from Con-ui's interviews with probation officers and from public records whether he had been left back earlier in his school career or if he had to repeat a grade or two after emigrating to the United States from the Philippines.
Sliney, Jamie Con-ui and Con-ui's sister, Maria Mask, did not respond to interview requests.
A 'desperate' thief
Con-ui's life disintegrated in Arizona.
He experimented with cocaine, spent $200 to $300 a week on crystal meth and drank as many as three cases of beer a week. He traded the relative calm of high school for membership in a violent street gang, the Eastside Locos, and moved from couch to couch in a cycle of transience that precipitated his string of automobile thefts. His mother and Sliney, the man he had known since childhood as a father figure, separated because of him.
The thefts, in May and July 1995, propelled Con-ui into the Arizona state prison system, where he became acquainted with the New Mexican Mafia. That initiation, irreversible under the bylaws of the gang, set in motion the succession of crimes and punishments - murder, two rounds of drug trafficking and long sentences in state and federal prison - that led to his alleged confrontation with Williams at Canaan on Feb. 25.
Con-ui told a Maricopa County, Ariz., probation officer that he sunk into a depression soon after going to prison for the automobile thefts. His "family's lack of support," he said, contributed to his bleak outlook. His mother and stepfather argued over how they thought Con-ui should be raised. Their divorce became final in 2004, according to Arizona court records.
Probation officer Michael Wimmer, relaying Con-ui's observations from a 1996 interview, wrote that Sliney would get "upset" and blame Teresita for Con-ui's behavior. Sliney felt Teresita was "too lenient" with Con-ui. The lack of discipline - of military precision and obedience that Sliney learned in the service - enabled an already reckless youth to explode into a monster.
Con-ui told Wimmer he started breaking into and stealing cars in 1995 because he was "desperate" for a place to live. He stole from friends, acquaintances and strangers. He busted into locked vehicles and preyed on people who momentarily left their keys in their ignitions while attending to other business.
In one such episode, Con-ui stole a purse from the front of Sarah Persinger's home as she unloaded groceries and, returning an hour later with the keys that had been in the purse, took off with her Volkswagen Fox. Con-ui told Wimmer he lived in the car for a week and drove it until it broke down. Con-ui overheated the engine, Persinger told Wimmer, and ruined the alternator. The car, she said, was a total loss.
Con-ui estimated he stole at least six cars in the three-month stretch in 1995 that led to his first felony charges and first prison sentence as an adult. Investigators documented five of them: three in the first three weeks of May; two more and a parking lot break-in within a seven-day stretch in July.
Con-ui pleaded guilty to two counts of theft and, with credit for time served after his arrest in the county lockup, spent less than six years in state prison.
Carnales por vida
Con-ui emerged from prison on Sept. 19, 2001 a fully engulfed carnal, or brother, of the New Mexican Mafia. Within a year, he graduated from theft to murder, executing a fellow carnal for failing to fulfill his obligations within the organization.
Con-ui, then 25, ambushed the underperforming carnal, Carlos L. Garcia, outside an East Phoenix laundry facility on Aug. 25, 2002, according to a report prepared ahead of Con-ui's sentencing in 2008. He and two other carnales, Manuel Medrano and the notorious Johnny "The Sinner" Farinas, fired 10 bullets into Garcia's head and upper torso before fleeing on foot, investigators said.
Garcia's fiancee, who had accompanied him to the facility, identified Con-ui from a police photo lineup. Medrano's roommate told police he and Farinas laughed at a television news report about the killing. Afterward, the roommate said, Farinas went into the backyard and burned his clothes.
"(Expletive) that punk," Medrano told the roommate, according to police. "We smoked that fool. He ain't nothing but a rat."
Con-ui remained free for another year before federal prosecutors charged him in the drug trafficking operation.
He worked at an Osco drug store in the Phoenix area and married Melissa Melendez in Las Vegas in March 2003.
They had two daughters and divorced quickly in 2005, after investigators in Phoenix charged him in the 2002 murder and after a federal judge ordered him to serve 11 years for his role in the drug trafficking operation.
Con-ui pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced in June 2008 to life in prison, with the possibility of parole after 25 years.
Con-ui's gang, the New Mexican Mafia, is considered the most lethal organized crime syndicate the state of Arizona has ever known.
They kill, and kill and kill to get their way.
Formed by prison inmates in Arizona in the mid-1980s, the gang has led a reign of terror for decades while pushing methamphetamine, cocaine and others drugs throughout the southwest and inside its prisons.
To them, "killing is currency," police in Arizona often say.
Farinas remains a sergeant in the gang that demands loyalty until death. Jailed in Arizona state prison on murder and gang-related charges until at least 2049, the 42-year-old appears unrepentant.
"You mess up, you're going to get hit in the head. Plain and simple," Farinas told History Channel for its "Gangland" series that aired in September 2010. "If I have to hit you, whack you, pop you, I'm going to do it."
Farinas, who spends his days isolated in solitary confinement for being an avowed gang member, sat down for an on-camera jailhouse interview for the show. Throughout the hourlong segment on the New Mexican Mafia, he describes how the gang operates and details the consequences for not playing on its terms.
"We have our own little rules and our little guidelines we go by. As long as you don't break those rules, you're gonna be alright. If you do, we're gonna come in and step in," Farinas said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Fouratt, who led a successful prosecution against many New Mexican Mafia members in 2005, said Fairnas was among the gang's most vicious members.
"He is viewed by the Phoenix Police Department as among the most capable and ruthless killers to have ever worn the tattoo," Fouratt told the show's producers.
Farines wears the telltale tattoo of a New Mexican Mafia on his upper chest - a sunburst, with two Ms and a skull, topped with the word, Carnalisimo.
"Carnalismo, means my brotherhood," Farinas said. "That's my patch. That's something I earned."
Fouratt declined to comment about the group when reached by telephone last week at his New Mexico office, only saying he was very familiar with Con-ui. He noted it would be inappropriate to speak about the group or Con-ui because his colleagues in the U.S. Department of Justice are investigating Williams' murder at United States Penitentiary at Canaan.
As of 2005, the New Mexican Mafia was "responsible for more than 100 murders and literally uncountable attempted murders and violent assaults," Fourtatt said during a speech at the time.
One of the newest gangs in the state, the New Mexican Mafia quickly became the most powerful. The gang was started in the early 1980s by members of the original Mexican Mafia after leaders were placed in solitary confinement for gang activity, experts told the History Channel. A decade later, Arizona adopted the same lockdown policy for every incarcerated gang member.
That placed a New Mexican Mafia bounty on the head of the then-head of the state prison system, Terry Stewart, in retaliation for the policy that significantly harmed the gang's ability to operate in prison.
Stewart detailed the murder plot in the History Channel report, saying he learned gang members were trailing him for weeks. One day, they followed him into his favorite restaurant ready to carry out the killing, but, by happenstance, two uniformed Phoenix police officers walked in and sat next to him.
"If they hadn't chose to walk in at that point, I would have been a victim," Stewart said.
The authorities who pursued gang members and the witnesses who planned to testify against them were high on the kill list as well. During the prosecution of 13 of the gang's leaders last decade, a detective was targeted for death, prosecutors started carrying guns and a judge demanded bodyguards and bulletproof glass for her court. Eight government witnesses were executed along the way. A prosecution motion indicated the gang was responsible "for a trail of dead bodies of murdered potential witnesses."
"These guys are killing machines," a law enforcement officer targeted for death by the group once told The Arizona Republic newspaper.
The Arizona Department of Public Safety, a version of the state police in Pennsylvania, list the New Mexican Mafia as an active gang on its website and details some of its history.
However, a spokesman for the department declined to speak about its current role.
"We never comment on specific gangs because it would give them undue publicity for their criminal activity," spokesman Bart Graves said in an email.
The website of Arizona Department of Corrections lists the New Mexican Mafia as one of nine active prison gangs whose members are placed in permanent lockdown. Following a history of the gang, the site includes a copy of the bylaws seized from an inmate years ago.
A part of the bylaws read: "You cannot become a carnal (brother) and then choose not to associate or be a part of the Mexican Mafia. This will not be permitted. There are no revolving doors to walk in or walk out whenever we please.
This is known as the "blood in, blood out" oath.
Farinas still pledges allegiance to the gang despite rumblings he has been "greenlighted" for murder for discussing gang business - about another gang member - in a prison phone call that was wiretapped by authorities.
"Sinner snitched. Yea, in a way, he did snitch. It's was a dry snitch," another New Mexican Mafia gang member told the History Channel, noting that a dry snitch is "snitching by accident."
Asked about his gang's purported turn against him, Farinas said: "My mindset from the gate is for my people and I still love my people. I will always be here for my people."
Sgt. D. Gomez, intelligence supervisor for Maricopa County's Fourth Avenue Jail, said the gang remains very active.
"It's one of the most dangerous prison gangs we have in Arizona. The Mexican Mafia is the most active here," Gomez noted.
Those identified as a member of the gang are placed in maximum-security isolation for 23 hours a day, he said.
"They have a propensity to try to jeopardize the security of the jail. In Arizona, they are considered a security threat because they are a prison gang. They are pretty much placed in a lockdown setting."
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