A criminal grand jury has indicted a teenager and his mother in connection with the shooting death of a 21-year-old man in Empire last year in what authorities have called gang retaliation.
The indictment was unsealed Thursday morning during a brief hearing at the Stanislaus County Superior Courthouse.
Santiago Rivas, 18, has been charged with premeditated murder in the death of Gabriel Estrada Lopez, who was gunned down in the middle of the afternoon Feb. 4, 2012, near First and G streets in Empire. The defendant was 17 years old when the shooting occurred but is being prosecuted as an adult.
Rivas also has been charged with assault with a firearm and actively participating in a criminal street gang the Norteños, according to the indictment filed Tuesday. He remains in custody at the Stanislaus County Jail in lieu of $2 million bail.
His mother, 41-year-old Sandra Rodriguez, has been charged with harboring or helping a felony suspect avoid arrest or prosecution. She remains free on bail as she awaits trial.
Deputy District Attorney Mar-lisa Ferreira has said Rodriguez lied about her son's whereabouts at the time of the shooting.
Enhancements have been added to Rivas' charges, alleging he used a gun and committed the crimes to benefit the criminal street gang. If convicted, the enhancements could lengthen his prison sentence.
The defendants were arrested in late March 2012 and were arraigned on these charges last year. Their preliminary hearing was scheduled to start this month, but the indictment means the criminal case skips that phase and moves straight to trial.
A preliminary hearing, which is held in open court, is an opportunity for defense attorneys to see how strong the evidence is against their client and how well prosecution testimony holds up under cross-examination.
Grand jury proceedings, however, are held behind closed doors, and witnesses testify without the defendants or their defense attorneys present. In this case, 19 witnesses testified, including a forensic pathologist, five Stanislaus County sheriff's officials and a gang investigator with the Stanislaus County district attorney's office.
On Thursday, Matthew Yeoman, Rodriguez's defense attorney, asked the judge to postpone the arraignment on the indictment charges until after he's had had a chance to review the grand jury transcript. Kellee Malone, Sanchez's defense attorney, joined Yeoman in his request.
Ferreira did not object to delaying the arraignment, but the prosecutor asked the judge to seal the grand jury transcript from public view at least until after the defense attorneys have a chance to review the transcript. She argued that keeping the transcript sealed will ensure the defendants receive a fair trial.
Judge John Freeland granted both requests and scheduled the defendants to return to court July 25.
Sheriff's detectives have said they found a connection between the Lopez shooting and one that occurred in Empire a few months before.
Two teenagers were shot while riding in a car on Inland Avenue in September 2011. The vehicle crashed about a block from the shooting and two 17-year-old boys ran from it, leaving behind a 16-year-old boy from Riverbank, who died in the car.
The three in the car had come across a dropout Norteño gang member and intended to harm him, but the dropout reacted first and opened fire on the car, according to detectives.
The suspect in the 2011 shooting, whose name was withheld by detectives, is Lopez's cousin, authorities have said. Criminal charges have not been filed in that shooting.
The detectives believe Lopez's death was retaliatory because he wouldn't stop associating with his cousin.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2394. Follow him on Twitter @ModBeeCourts.