MODESTO -- Domingo Becerra has spent more than half his life incarcerated for committing crimes on behalf of his Norteño street gang in Modesto's airport neighborhood. The 25-year-old testified that he's shot at rival gang members, thrown Molotov cocktail bombs at homes and burglarized stores, all to benefit the gang.
He told a jury Wednesday afternoon that he now faces a death sentence, although not by authorities. Becerra said he's a target for other Norteño gang members after he agreed to testify against his alleged accomplices in a fatal 2010 Modesto home-invasion robbery.
Even though he's in protective custody at the Stanislaus County Jail, Becerra testified that he's not safe while incarcerated and never will be.
"I won't be able to walk nowhere," Becerra said on the witness stand. He said he can easily be assassinated by inactive gang members or dropout gang members not closely monitored by jail or prison officials.
Becerra has become such a target because he's cooperated with authorities on criminal cases and has agreed to testify against highly ranked members of the gang.
In exchange for a plea deal that results in a sentence of 25 years to life in prison, Becerra is testifying against his accused robbery accomplices Hector Rocha Jr., 23; Jaime Cerpa, 31; Phillip Lopez, 19; and Angel Del Villar, 21.
The defendants are on trial accused of murder, home-invasion robbery and robbery in connection with Julio Jimenez's death.
Becerra testified that he was a part of the group that committed the robbery at the home in the 600 block of Thrasher Avenue in Modesto's airport neighborhood. He also admitted to the jury that he shot to death 32-year-old Jimenez during the botched robbery.
Initially, Becerra was charged with Jimenez's murder, the robbery and enhancements to his charges that could have resulted in a sentence of life in prison or the death penalty if convicted.
The Stanislaus County district attorney's office, however, offered Becerra the plea deal in exchange for his testimony in this murder trial and two other murder cases involving high-ranking Norteño gang members. Becerra told the jury Wednesday that the deal is off if he lies on the witness stand.
The plea deal guarantees that Becerra can serve his prison sentence in another state, where the threat by other Norteños isn't as great.
Two other accused accomplices in the home-invasion robbery have agreed to plea deals in exchange for testifying against the four defendants. One of them testified that Becerra shot Jimenez in the back as the victim was pleading for mercy.
The other accused accomplice told the jury the robbery's intent was to steal drugs, which would be sold with the profits benefiting the gang. The drugs were never found at the home.
Before Becerra got into the details of the home-invasion robbery, he told the jury about his criminal past and his struggles with mental illness.
He testified that he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder years ago while at a youth detention facility. Becerra said he suffers from dramatic mood swings, acting out violently without medication.
He used to take the medication, which made him feel like a zombie. In the past two years at the jail, Becerra said he has refused to take the medication but his mental health has been stable.
To fellow gang members, Becerra appeared to be a loyal follower and trustworthy messenger, passing along crucial information from those incarcerated to Norteños on the streets. Becerra testified that he also was working as a confidential informant for police.
Modesto police gang investigators paid him several hundred dollars to hand over "wilas," or miniature scrolls that function as gang newsletters in prison and jail, Becerra testified. The messages provided gang intelligence, which included rosters with names and rankings.
He told his police handlers he was using the money to buy baby formula, but instead was buying drugs. Becerra said he also worked as an informant for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Along with the messages, Becerra gave the investigators the ins and outs of the Norteños, information he was given by higher-ranking gang members while incarcerated. "I knew quite a lot," he testified.
But his secret work with police ended when he failed to hand over a gun believed to have been used in a homicide in the airport neighborhood. Becerra testified that he was making enough money on his own, selling methamphetamine and marijuana.
Becerra was looking to raise his status within the gang with the robbery on Thrasher Avenue. He always was striving to promote the gang's cause fighting off rival Sureño gang members trying to establish themselves in his neighborhood.
He told the jury that Cerpa called him over to his home in Keyes. Others have testified that the group planned the robbery in Keyes a few hours before going to the Thrasher Avenue home.
Becerra is expected to continue testifying today in Stanislaus County Superior Court and reveal more details about the home-invasion robbery.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2394.