MODESTO -- Murder trial defendant Hector Rocha Jr. sits in court as close to bailiffs as possible, separated from his three co-defendants since he decided to drop out of his gang and be placed in protective custody at the Stanislaus County Jail.
Rocha has told a jury details about a 2010 botched home-invasion robbery in Modesto's airport neighborhood that resulted in the death of victim Julio Jimenez, who was shot in the back as he pleaded for mercy. Rocha, Jaime Cerpa, Phillip Lopez and Angel Del Villar are accused of murder and home-invasion robbery in connection with the failed robbery at the Thrasher Avenue home.
Tuesday afternoon, Rocha shed some light on why he chose to testify about the robbery, even though prosecutors have not given him a plea deal in exchange for his testimony. He said he feared for his life after upset Norteño gang leaders made it clear they would retaliate against anyone who has cooperated with police.
Rocha specifically spoke about death threats made against Domingo Becerra, who has admitted that he shot to death Jimenez in the home-invasion robbery. Becerra has testified for the prosecution in exchange for a plea deal that will result in a sentence of 25 years to life in prison.
Gang leaders said Becerra was going to pay for his disloyalty, and he "was going to get killed, or someone in his family was," Rocha told the jury.
Becerra has testified against a Norteño gang regiment responsible for planning and carrying out the home-invasion robbery, according to authorities.
Modesto police gang investigator Sean Martin testified Tuesday that the gang regiment is linked to about 20 robberies in 2009 and 2010, but the Modesto home-invasion robbery was the only one that resulted in a death and the only one Becerra was involved in.
Aquiles Virgen, the other accused accomplice who has testified in exchange for a plea deal, said the home-
invasion 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.
Wary after attack
Virgen was Rocha's cellmate, or "cellie," in jail as they awaited trial. When Virgen was attacked in jail and subsequently placed in protective custody, Rocha became wary of his fellow gang members in jail.
He testified that gang leaders were upset about two witnesses who were "soft" in their statements to police, indicating that they provided too much information. Rocha said he thought he was one of the witnesses who would be targeted for retaliation, so he asked bailiffs in October to place him in protective custody.
"I feared for my life, because about what happened to my cellie and my cooperation with (investigator) Sean Martin," Rocha told the jury.
Rocha made clear in court that after leaving the gang, he has never been debriefed by investigators about Norteño gang activity.
The murder trial is expected to continue today in Stanislaus County Superior Court.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2394.