MODESTO -- Eight years after 17-year-old Ernestina "Tina" DeJesus Tizoc was gunned down while sitting on a park bench in Modesto's airport neighborhood, a judge Tuesday sentenced two men convicted of murdering her to 50 years to life in prison.
A jury in May 2011 found Edgar Barajas, 25, of Modesto and Jesus Rodriguez, 24, of Patterson guilty of murder, committing the crime for a street gang, conspiracy to commit murder, using a gun and participating in a criminal street gang.
Tina, a Johansen High School junior, was sitting on a bench in Oregon Park when she was shot about 5:45 p.m. May 26, 2004. The shots were fired into the park in broad daylight with about 80 youths there participating in an after-school program.
Others who were at the park that day had an affiliation with the Norteños street gang. The park is a known stronghold for the gang. A gang expert testified that Barajas and Rodriguez were members of the rival Sureños.
Authorities said Tina became the victim of gang retaliation because she wore a maroon blouse, similar to the red worn by Norteño gang members. She was not a gang member, a gang expert testified in the trial.
Tina's mother, Manuela Ra-mirez, expressed an intense sense of relief after Tuesday's sentences were announced.
Altogether, four defendants were convicted and sent to prison for their involvement in the shooting. Ramirez has remained persistent, sitting in the court audience for every hearing to ensure those responsible received punishment.
"Now, my daughter has justice," Ramirez said in Spanish in the courthouse hallway. "This case is over, thank God. Eight years we waited for this justice."
The defendants were silent during most of the hearing. They occasionally whispered to their attorneys and did not turn to look at the courtroom audience when bailiffs ushered them out.
Ramirez said she visits her daughter's grave site almost every other day at Lakewood Memorial Park in Hughson. Although it's been several years since Tina's death, she said the pain she felt when she was informed of the shooting remains vivid in her mind.
"My daughter was a part of my life that they took away," Ramirez said, wiping tears.
Deputy District Attorney Tom Brennan hugged Ramirez after the hearing and explained to her the details of the defendants' sentence. "She'll never get closure for the death of Tina, but she should feel some satisfaction in their 50-years-to-life sentence," Brennan said.
As part of their sentence, Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Nancy Ashley said Barajas and Rodriguez must register with law enforcement as gang members if they ever are released from prison on parole.
The district attorney's office prosecuted Barajas and Rodriguez as adults, although they were minors at the time of the shooting. Their sentencing hearing, initially scheduled for June 8, 2011, was postponed several times.
In the trial, Brennan told the jury that the shooter, Barajas, and driver, Rodriguez, sought retaliation against rival Norteño gang members who had broken the windows in their white Chevrolet Blazer the night before.
Witnesses told authorities the gunfire came from a white Blazer filled with teenage boys who wore blue, shouted Sureño gang slogans and flashed gang signs with their hands as they circled the park. Blue is the color worn by Sureños.
Robert Winston, Rodriguez's defense attorney, argued in the trial that someone fired a gun at the Blazer, hitting Tina accidentally and killing her. He also argued that shots were fired first from the park, and the teens in the Blazer fired the rifle in self-defense.
The case was stalled for nearly seven years because of numerous pretrial hearings, a key prosecution witness who left town and the judge delaying the start of the trial for fear potential jurors could have been tainted by a Bee story in November 2010 recounting the crime.
Two others accused of being passengers in the Blazer, Pedro Luis Castillo and Rigoberto Moreno, both of Modesto, pleaded guilty to manslaughter in May 2009 and were sent to prison for nine years and eight months each.
Mario Garcia of Modesto was one of five teenage boys in the Blazer. He testified that they were looking for revenge after a series of escalating attacks by Norteños.
He testified against his buddies as part of a plea deal that helped him avoid murder charges. Garcia who was an illegal immigrant was deported to Mexico after he testified in the 2011 trial.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2394.