Killing ‘Kato’: the story of Latin Kings boss Rudy Rangel Jr.’s murder
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Rudy Rangel Jr. liked to keep his hair short. So Rangel, a leader of the Latin Kings, one of Chicago’s biggest street gangs, had been going several times a month to Nationwide Cutz, a barbershop operating out of a trailer near Roosevelt and Sacramento on the West Side.
On June 4, 2003, late in the evening, the gang leader known as “Kato” was in the barber chair, his back to the open door, Game 1 of the NBA Finals between the San Antonio Spurs and New Jersey Nets on the TV.
Outside, a 21-year-old, recently paroled ex-con named Donell “Squeaky” Simmons walked through the alley to the shop, a red, white and blue Nets cap on his head and a pistol at his waist.
Two men were sitting on the stairs to the barbershop, waiting to get in, when Simmons walked up. “Let me get by,” Simmons told them.
In a few moments, Rangel, 30, lay dying.
Now, 15 years later, 11 members of the Four Corner Hustlers, including Labar “Bro Man” Spann, leader of the gang, await prosecution next year in one of the biggest gang trials ever in Chicago. Rangel’s killing and five other murders are at the heart of the sweeping racketeering conspiracy case set to be heard in federal court in September 2019.
Though Simmons and two others went to prison in Rangel’s death, some details of the high-profile killing — rapper DMX later recorded a tribute to Rangel called “A’Yo Kato” — never came out.
Authorities said the shooting resulted from an attempted jewel robbery. But interviews and thousands of pages of records from the U.S. attorney’s office, the Chicago Police Department, the Cook County state’s attorney’s office and the Cook County medical examiner’s office reviewed by the Chicago Sun-Times suggest another possible motive: that the murder was contracted after Rangel stole 150 kilos of cocaine. Based on those records, this is the story of the killing of Rudy “Kato” Rangel Jr.
• • •
Born on Thanksgiving Day 1972, Rangel grew up in LeClaire Courts on the Southwest Side but ended up traveling in lofty circles in two worlds: crime and rap music.
As a kid, he was friends with Pedro Flores and Margarito Flores — twin brothers from Little Village who grew up to be the biggest drug traffickers in the city before they got caught and agreed to help the Justice Department build the case that led to the arrest of Mexico drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
At 17, Rangel pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance and got a year’s probation. In 1993, he was convicted of attempted murder, aggravated battery, aggravated battery with a firearm and armed violence and got seven years in prison.
Rangel married someone from the neighborhood: Valerie Gaytan, daughter of a Chicago cop. He had a tattoo on his chest for her: “Destined Forever My Queen Valerie.” Soon after Rangel’s killing, though, Gaytan took up with Margarito Flores. Before going into federal protective custody, they spent time at Guzman’s cartel fortress in Mexico, which she wrote about in the 2017 book “Cartel Wives.”
Rangel had friends and aspirations in the music business, rubbing elbows with hip-hop heavyweights including DMX and Fat Joe, who, in a radio interview last August, called him “a beautiful dude.” A friend told police Rangel had two performers he was in negotiations with Dreamworks to record.
• • •
Rangel, who traveled with a bodyguard, liked flashy jewelry. In the spring of 2003, he drove to Lawrence’s Fish & Shrimp at Cermak and Canal to meet “John,” a Latin King who’d told him he’d sell him a stolen, diamond-laden Franck Muller watch worth $125,000 for $25,000. Rangel bought it.
Martise Nunnery — 26, asthmatic and a member of the Unknown Vice Lords — told authorities “John” told him about selling the watch to Rangel and that he’d seen him wearing that, a diamond bracelet and a platinum necklace with a pendant. Nunnery figured the jewelry was worth at least $240,000.
In May 2003, Nunnery got in touch with a guy named Marcus Ware, who hung around the barbershop at Roosevelt and Sacramento and had two drug convictions and one on a weapons charge. The next time he saw Rangel at the barbershop, Nunnery told Ware, call him, he wanted to talk about the music business.
Ware said Nunnery told him he’d pay him $1,500 to $2,000. He figured Nunnery was going to rob him — but not just for the jewelry. In trial testimony, Ware said Nunnery told him he “was intending to kill [Rangel] because Nunnery was going to get $190,000 and 15 kilos of cocaine.”
Nunnery reached out to Spann, feared leader of the brutal Four Corner Hustlers, which claimed large swaths of the West Side. In June 1997, at 18, Spann was charged with murder and aggravated discharge of a firearm but found not guilty, though his two co-defendants were convicted and each got 60-year prison sentences.
The following year, Spann was charged with aggravated battery to a peace officer, unlawful use of a weapon by a felon and being a felon in possession of a firearm. He got probation.
Even while held at the Cook County Jail, Spann — who has used a wheelchair since being shot more than 15 years ago — has found himself in trouble. He’s been reprimanded for threatening correctional officers, attacking one with his wheelchair and fashioning a shiv out of pens and medical tape — for which he received minimal punishment.
The indictment last September targeting the Four Corner Hustlers includes six murders. Spann was linked to all six.
Spann, whose attorney Tod Urban didn’t return messages seeking comment, already is facing as many as 70 years in prison, having pleaded guilty three months before the indictment to being a felon in possession of a weapon, obstruction of justice involving witness tampering and cocaine possession with intent to distribute.
Nunnery had known Spann just a few months. In the weeks before Rangel’s killing, he told authorities, he told Spann “that I had a lick up for somebody that had a lot of jewelry.”
Spann already was planning to rob Rangel, according to Nunnery.
“When I described the chain that the guy had, he was, like, ‘Yeah, I know who that is, we was just trying to rob him,’ ” Nunnery told a prosecutor.
Nunnery said his job was to locate Rangel, and Spann’s was to get someone to rob him. Spann knew Simmons and told him he’d pay him up to $30,000 for the job, according to Nunnery.
Simmons told detectives that, in May 2003, Spann told him about talk of Rangel having stolen 150 kilos of cocaine and hired him to kill Rangel.
“Bro Man told Donell about a ‘lick’ that a Puerto Rican had done for 150 kilos of cocaine,” a detective wrote after interviewing Simmons. “Bro Man said a ‘Cuba mother—— or Mexican’ ‘wanted dude taken care of.’ Bro Man asked Donell to kill the dude for ten to thirty thousand dollars.”
Late that May, Ware, Nunnery and Spann picked up Simmons at his West Side home, according to a prosecutor’s report. “They rode around in the car and Bro Man was just talking about hitting this lick or committing the robbery and Martise kept adding that ‘We’re going to pay you. We got you,’ ” the prosecutor wrote after an interview with Simmons.
Nunnery didn’t want to just wait to hear from Ware that Rangel had shown up at the barbershop. So he started looking for Rangel himself around Fullerton and Clybourn, near a recording studio Rangel had.
A few days after Nunnery, Ware and Spann had picked up Simmons, Simmons later told the prosecutor, he was picked up at home again. Ware, Spann and a third man were driving around, Simmons said, then Spann called Nunnery, and they headed to Roosevelt and California.
“Donell states that as they rode in the car, he saw Martise on the sidewalk shaking the dude’s hand. Donell states that Bro Man said ‘That’s him right there,’ pointing to the dude on the sidewalk shaking Martise’s hand. Donell states that the dude was Kato, now known as Rudy Rangel, and this dude is the guy Bro Man was telling Donell to shoot at,” the prosecutor wrote.
“Donell states that Bro Man told Donell that he wanted Donell to pop him. Donell states that ‘pop him’ meant to kill him and ‘him’ was the dude they call ‘Kato.’ ”
Simmons had been paroled just months before. In a deal with prosecutors, he’d pleaded guilty to aggravated discharge of a firearm, was sentenced to four years in prison in May 2002 and paroled from the Vandalia Correctional Center on Feb. 26, 2003.
• • •
On June 4, 2003, Nunnery was at work at a cellphone store when he got the call from Ware he’d been waiting for: Rangel was at the barbershop.
He told authorities Spann picked him up, and they called Simmons to let him know they were coming to get him. Simmons was walking to a liquor store at Madison and Keeler when he saw Nunnery driving a red Ford Taurus with Spann in back and another man in the front. He got in next to Spann.
Outside the barbershop, they saw Rangel’s blue SUV, drove a block west and turned, parking just north of the alley, according to what Nunnery and Simmons told authorities.
“Donell states that Bro Man handed the gun to Donell. Donell states that as Bro Man handed the gun to him, Bro Man told Donell, ‘Don’t miss. Come back. We’ll be right here waiting for you.’ ”
“Man, Shorty, don’t miss him,” Nunnery said.
Simmons took the gun and got out.
• • •
Rangel was headed somewhere else that day when he called a friend from prison who told him he was at Nationwide for a haircut. Rangel decided to join him.
He was there only a few minutes when Simmons — who didn’t know about Rangel’s 23-year-old bodyguard or his five-shot revolver — came out of the alley.
About a minute after Simmons got out of the car, Spann, Nunnery and the third man heard gunshots.
So did two Cook County sheriff’s officers on patrol in an unmarked squad car at Roosevelt and Sacramento who reported the gunfire to the Chicago police.
Rangel fell, and Simmons said he kept firing, also hitting the barber in the right foot and the bodyguard in his left hand.
“Donell said no words were exchanged, he just began firing the pistol at ‘dude,’ ” a detective wrote after questioning Simmons.
Simmons ran with the bodyguard in pursuit and the sheriff’s officers now less than a block away.
The bodyguard told detectives he shot at Simmons but missed, then dumped his gun in a bucket of soapy water at a car wash next to the barbershop before going back to Rangel.
A sheriff’s officer chased but lost Simmons.
As he ran, Simmons’ Nets cap fell off. It landed on the sidewalk near Rangel’s SUV.
Inside the trailer, Rangel was face-down, blood pooling around him, two gunshots to the back of his neck that left stippling residue indicating he’d been shot up-close. He also was hit in his left shoulder, the left side of his chest, his left abdomen and left hip, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office, which noted Rangel still had on his pricey watch and bracelet. Detectives found the necklace and pendant on the stairs to the barbershop.
• • •
As soon as the men in the car waiting outside the barbershop heard gunfire, “Bro Man began shouting ‘Get me out of this car,’ ” a detective wrote after interviewing Nunnery.
Nunnery said he carried Spann to the porch of a nearby home, saw a car heading north on Whipple, recognized the driver and flagged him down. He said the man drove them three blocks to a Hollywood Video at Roosevelt and Spaulding where Nunnery called his girlfriend, who picked them up, dropping him nearby before taking Spann to Arthington and Karlov.
Nunnery said Spann called that night, saying he hadn’t heard from Simmons and was wondering what happened inside the barbershop. Nunnery told him people “were telling him that a guy was dead.”
Days later, Ware said “he heard on the street that ‘Kato’ had ripped some Mexicans off for some dope and that they paid someone to kill him. Ware states that he knew that, the way ‘Kato’ was killed, that it was not just a robbery,” a detective wrote.
Spann already was under scrutiny by the Chicago Police Department. An informant friendly with Spann wore a wire for investigators targeting Spann and his crew. That investigation — dubbed Operation 5K for Fifth Avenue and Karlov, where Spann lived — led to dozens of murder convictions.
Detectives investigating Rangel’s death learned of an informant being used by the police department’s Organized Crime Division who’d recorded conversations with Nunnery in which he implicated himself in the shooting. The transcripts included one between Nunnery and the informant seven weeks after the shooting.
“In that conversation, Nunnery talks about paying a subject named ‘Squeaky’ thirteen thousand dollars for doing something, but got cheated,” detectives wrote. “Nunnery goes on to say that it was ‘Squeaky,’ ‘Bro Man’ and himself in the car but only ‘Squeaky’ got out and ‘did it.’ Nunnery says that the police were ‘right there’ when this happened.”
Eight days later, the informant spoke with a man who said Nunnery tried to hire him to kill Rangel before turning to Spann. He told the informant, “Martise tried to get him to ‘merc the Puerto Rican stud,’ ” a detective wrote. “The C.I. understood this to mean Nunnery attempted to hire [the man] to murder Rangel. [The man] goes on to say that he didn’t want to do it, but that Nunnery ‘f—– him [Rangel] up in the barbershop.’ ”
• • •
It would be more than five months before arrests were made. Ware and Nunnery were brought in on Nov. 14, and Simmons was arrested eight days later, initially in a separate incident.
Spann already was in the Cook County Jail on an unrelated armed robbery charge when detectives wanted to talk with him and the others about Rangel.
All four agreed to speak with detectives and prosecutors without lawyers present.
At the start of his interview, “Mr. Simmons denied any involvement in the incident, but did state that he had read about it in the newspapers and inquired as to whether or not the newspapers were accurate in saying that offenders had been arrested and had confessed,” detectives wrote.
Detectives told Simmons they were matching evidence to those involved and had DNA.
“Mr. Simmons immediately stated that he would willingly submit a DNA test,” detectives wrote.
They told Simmons they wanted to compare his DNA with hair recovered from a New Jersey Nets cap found on the sidewalk outside the barbershop.
“Mr. Simmons then stated that he would talk to Det. O’Donovan about this incident, but asked that he be given a cigarette and water first,” detectives wrote.
Later that month, a grand jury approved charges against all four men of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, aggravated battery, aggravated battery with a firearm, conspiracy to commit armed robbery and attempted armed robbery. Spann and Nunnery also were charged with soliciting murder, murder for hire and armed robbery. Simmons also was charged with aggravated unlawful use of a weapon.
• • •
Those criminal cases concluded in 2008 with convictions and prison for everyone but Spann.
Ware made a deal, pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit armed robbery, testifying against Simmons and getting an 11-year sentence. The state’s attorney’s office dropped the murder, attempted murder, aggravated battery and conspiracy to commit murder charges.
In October 2008, Simmons was convicted of murder, aggravated battery with a firearm and conspiracy to commit murder. He got 53 years in prison.
Nunnery was convicted of murder and given 36 years in prison.
Before Nunnery was sentenced, Rangel’s mother, Mary Rangel, gave a victim’s impact statement. “I am not here saying my son was an angel or that I am one of the mothers that act like he never did wrong, but whatever he did, he did not deserve to die like that,” she said.
Spann turned down a plea deal, and Cook County Judge James Schreier found him not guilty.
In 2009, Spann pleaded guilty to the armed robbery. He got six years in prison but was credited with five years and 10 months of time served.
While incarcerated, Spann was charged with bringing drugs into a penal institution and harassing a witness, which added three years and two years to his armed robbery sentence, though he also was credited with more than 700 days of time served in jail.
And now Spann awaits another reckoning in court over the killing of Rudy “Kato” Rangel Jr., among other charges in the federal conspiracy case targeting the Four Corner Hustlers.