MODESTO — A reputed Norteño gang member testifying in a murder trial Thursday described the moment he fired three shots into the back of a man pleading for mercy during a 2010 botched home-invasion robbery in Modesto's airport neighborhood.
"I think he was praying, saying, 'I'm sorry,' " Domingo Becerra told the jury about not fully understanding what Julio Jimenez was saying in Spanish moments before he was shot.
The planned robbery had gone horribly wrong for Becerra and his alleged accomplices. Becerra thought there were drugs and money at the home, but they didn't find any.
Now, he had to go back to gang leaders empty-handed. Becerra was worried about that, he testified, and he was angry that Jimenez had tried to escape by jumping over a nearby fence.
"He came down (from the fence), and I shot him in the back ... with a .357 (handgun)," Becerra testified.
Authorities later found 32-year-old Jimenez in the home's back yard. He died at a hospital.
Becerra initially was charged with Jimenez's murder, but not any longer. He's agreed to a plea deal with a prison sentence of 25 years to life in exchange for his testimony against the alleged accomplices in the robbery.
Sitting on the witness stand wearing shackles and a jump suit from jail, Becerra testified Thursday that Hector Rocha Jr., 23; Jaime Cerpa, 31; Phillip Lopez, 19; and Angel Del Villar, 21, participated in or helped plan the robbery.
The four defendants are on trial accused of murder, home-invasion robbery and robbery in connection with Jimenez's death. Becerra has agreed to testify in this case and two other murder trials authorities say are gang-related.
Several hours before the robbery, Becerra said the group of Norteño gang members gathered at Cerpa's Keyes home to ready themselves for the robbery. They initially were supposed to rob a Merced home, but Becerra provided the Thrasher Avenue home as the new target.
"I know a lot of drug houses," said Becerra, who has testified that he used to sell methamphetamine and marijuana. "I know a lot of big-time drug dealers."
He told the jury that he has seen many people buy drugs at the Thrasher Avenue home. A friend of his, who had been inside the home before, drew him a diagram of the house that was used to plan the robbery.
Becerra believed there would be a couple of pounds of crystal meth and about $2,000 in cash at the home. He said the profits from the robbery would go to gang leaders, and some of it would be given to the robbers.
They used ripped T-shirts to mask their faces, a technique Becerra learned during inmate riots at a youth detention facility. Becerra testified that he came up with the masking idea for the robbery.
He said the robbers wore multiple layers of clothing, so they could discard the outer layer and not match suspect descriptions broadcast over police radios.
They brought along his mother's red car, to be used, if needed, to ram a pursuing police patrol car and allow the robbers to get away. Becerra said he was willing to do anything to maintain his rising gang status.
Hours before the robbery, gang leaders had agreed to hand Becerra the "keys," or allow him to be the gang's highest-ranking member in the airport neighborhood. He would be selling drugs on behalf of the gang in east Modesto, paying "taxes" or handing over a portion of his profits to gang leaders.
The robbers, Becerra said, got into a Jeep and drove to Thrasher.
"Everybody was holding their guns or had them on their laps," said Becerra, who snorted some lines of cocaine before the robbery. He said the cocaine made him more alert after drinking beer all day and "just gave me a more violent mood."
The group planned to enter the home from an alley, but it was blocked by a Dumpster. The robbers drove to the front of the house, where they spotted a green sport utility vehicle arriving.
Becerra testified that he thought the home's owners were in the SUV and easily could be caught off-guard before they got into the house. He said they found Jimenez, another man and a woman in the vehicle, but Becerra later learned they weren't the people he was looking for.
"I thought they were lying to me; yeah, I got mad," Becerra told the jury. He said he was worried the victims were fooling him "even though I had the gun," which would have weakened his status.
Becerra testified that he started yelling orders to the other robbers as they held the victims at gunpoint. At one point, Becerra hit Jimenez in the back of his head with the butt of his gun.
Two other alleged accomplices who received plea deals, Aquiles Virgen and Daniel Flores, pistol-whipped the other man. Becerra said the robbers forced the three victims to lie on the ground in the back yard.
He ransacked the house but never found the drugs or the cash. Becerra returned to the back yard and found Jimenez trying to escape.
"It pissed me off," because Flores was supposed to secure the victims, Becerra said. He then shot Jimenez.
At that moment, Becerra said he didn't have any regrets about shooting Jimenez. He thought the victim was still lying to him. "I was already in my zone, I didn't care," Becerra testified.
The robbery suspects, including Becerra, were apprehended later after a cross-town police chase that ended in the Parklawn Avenue area in south Modesto.
Testimony in the murder trial is expected to continue today in Stanislaus County Superior Court.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2394.