The terror that criminal gangs wield over their own members was evident Thursday at a murder trial in Modesto.
One of the four defendants testified that he was afraid gang leaders would target him for retaliation, so he reluctantly agreed to participate in a botched Modesto home-invasion robbery that resulted in the shooting death of a man.
Hector Rocha Jr. told the court of how he found his role in the robbery escalating quickly, and how ploys and excuses to get out of the crime failed. He testified that a gang leader had coerced him to commit armed robberies before and that he had heard about how this group of Norteños would target those members who didn't "function," or obey gang leaders.
"I knew he would make me do more robberies, stuff I didn't want to do," Rocha testified.
He feared he would be assaulted or robbed, or his home would be robbed for failing to follow the gang's orders.
Rocha said he was forced to join several gang members in the armed robbery that ended in the death of Julio Jimenez, who was shot multiple times March 24, 2010. Authorities found the 32-year-old man in the back yard of the home in the 600 block of Thrasher Avenue. He died later at a local hospital.
The defendant's allegations indicated that the gang leader who forced him to participate in the armed robbery was Johnny Montalvo, who is in custody awaiting prosecution on a separate homicide case. Rocha referred to Montalvo by the street moniker "Manos."
Montalvo is not on trial for Jimenez's murder and prosecutors have not offered a plea deal to Rocha in exchange for his testimony.
Rocha, Jaime Cerpa, Phillip Lopez and Angel Del Villar are on trial accused of murder, home-invasion robbery and robbery in connection with Jimenez's death.
Initially, Domingo Becerra and Aquiles Virgen also were charged with Jimenez's murder, but they've agreed to a plea deal in exchange for their testimony against their alleged accomplices.
Thursday, Rocha testified that he would avoid phone calls from Montalvo because "he pushes up on people" and had forced him to commit other robberies in Delhi and Turlock. Rocha said he once intentionally drank himself into a stupor, passing out on a couch, which forced the others to commit a robbery without him.
Rocha again received a call from Montalvo on March 23, 2010, telling him to drive a group of gang members to a Keyes home. An excuse that he didn't have enough gas failed when Montalvo said gas money would be provided and this was a direct order from "the big homies," Rocha testified.
The group arrived in Keyes. Rocha stayed in his Jeep, expecting he would just be dropping them off, but he said Montalvo told him to get out. Rocha testified that he immediately became wary that the gang leaders wanted to talk to him.
He told the jury that Montalvo wanted him to be a getaway driver for the robbery on Thrasher Avenue. He told Montalvo his Jeep would stall and had trouble starting, hoping he wouldn't have to join in the robbery.
His excuse didn't work, Rocha testified, because Montalvo said there was no other option. He was told to stay in the Jeep while the others went inside to rob the house.
Rocha tried another ploy to avoid the robbery, something that had worked before. He said he started to drink a lot of beer, quickly. "I pop a can, guzzle it. Pop another can, guzzle it," Rocha told the jury. "So I would get completely drunk and go nowhere, like last time."
He said he was drinking the cold beer so fast that it started to give him brain-freeze, so he had to slow down. When Montalvo noticed he was drinking a lot, he told Rocha to stop or he would be too drunk to help them with the robbery. Rocha then was handed a gun.
He said he drove the group, which included Becerra, Virgen, Lopez and Del Villar, to the Thrasher Avenue home.
The plan went awry when they found a Dumpster blocking the alley's rear access to the home. The robbery became further complicated when a sport utility vehicle unknown to them pulled up to the front of the home. They sat in the Jeep wondering if they should go ahead with the robbery.
"I didn't want to say nothing to look bad in their eyes and become a target," Rocha told the jury. "I just kept thinking, 'I hope we don't go.' "
But they went ahead with the robbery. The three people inside the SUV were pulled out and eventually held at gunpoint in the home's back yard. In the meantime, Rocha and Del Villar entered the home through a window to find the drugs and cash they were looking for.
They encountered another man inside the house who reached for what looked like a weapon. Rocha testified that he fired his gun twice into the ceiling to stop the man, which he did.
Rocha didn't understand the Spanish-speaking man, so Del Villar tried talking to him. Del Villar and the man started arguing, so Rocha fired another shot into the ceiling to stop the argument.
The cash and the drugs weren't found in the home.
Jimenez, being held at gunpoint in the back yard, tried to jump over a fence and escape. Becerra has testified he shot Jimenez in his back as the man pleaded for mercy.
Rocha was expected to continue his testimony today in Stanislaus County Superior Court.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2394.