A traumatic event that's "still on his mind every day."
That's how a soft-spoken 16-year-old boy reflected on the late evening of May 14, when he was wounded and 17-year-old DeAngelo Smith was killed in a hail of bullets at the Sunnyside Apartments in South Merced.
The teen's statements were among the latest testimony in the trial of Juan Manuel Mendez, 19. The defendant is charged with murder and attempted murder for allegedly participating in Smith's killing and injuring the 16-year-old.
Merced police believe Mendez was the getaway driver. The other assailants haven't been caught.
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Under questioning from Deputy District Attorney David Sandhaus, the 16-year-old boy described the shooting in harrowing detail. His name and those of other witnesses are being withheld by the Sun-Star to protect them from retribution.
Deputy Public Defender Sean Howard, Mendez's attorney, hasn't yet given his opening statements in the trial.
Wearing a somber expression, the teen told jurors he lived at the apartment complex off D Street, where Smith also lived. The two had become friends and liked to play basketball together. On the day of the shooting, the 16-year-old and Smith had met up with other friends.
About an hour before the shooting was reported at 11 p.m., Smith and the 16-year-old were by themselves and sat down at a park bench at a playground in the complex, where they talked about sports.
The pair was sitting at opposite ends of the bench when three people walked up with their heads covered in white T-shirts. The teen said the shirts were wrapped around their heads so that only their eyes were visible.
At first, the teen thought the trio may have been their friends, but as they got closer, something seemed wrong. The suspects then began talking all at once. "What up, fool!" one of them yelled. The trio had also pulled guns, and one of them cocked a shotgun.
The 16-year-old said he told them, "We don't even gang-bang," although his words fell on deaf ears. Standing about eight feet away, the assailants opened fire. The 16-year-old went to the ground, turning to the side and trying to cover his head. Two of the assailants fled, while the one carrying the shotgun walked over and pointed it at the 16-year-old as he lay on the ground.
"I'm done, I'm done!" the teen recalled telling the shooter. "I thought he was going to kill me."
The person with the shotgun then turned and ran. After the assailants had fled, the teen got up, picked up Smith's cell phone and dialed 911. The teen began to walk, but a male apartment resident told him to lie down on the ground until help could arrive. The 16-year-old was flown to Doctors Medical Center in Modesto, while Smith was pronounced dead at the scene by paramedics.
Asked if he had any gang ties, the teen said he didn't, although some of the people he'd play basketball with did. The teen also said Smith wasn't a gang member. Fearing retribution, the teen acknowledged he's moved out of the area and is under witness protection from law enforcement. He still has two bullets lodged inside his body because doctors said it would be too risky to remove them. "They told me how lucky I am to be alive," the teen said.
Sandhaus said during his opening statement in the trial that Mendez and his fellow gang members committed the shooting to enhance the gang's reputation.
A witness at the scene also testified Thursday that he recognized Mendez the day of the shooting after seeing him parked in the GMC Yukon SUV in front of the Sunnyside Apartments.
"Is the person you saw driving in the courtroom?" Sandhaus asked the witness.
"Yeah," he replied, pointing out Mendez, who sat in the courtroom wearing a blue shirt and slacks.
Mendez's mother also testified during the trial, saying her son was preparing to graduate from Golden Valley High School when he was arrested.
The defendant's mother testified that school officials at Golden Valley High had notified her about two fights he'd been in. They'd also told her Mendez had worn gang colors to school, although she doubted he was actually a member. "He's not the type of person to be in gangs," she testified.
Prosecutors say three of the four bullets pulled from Smith's body matched a gun Merced police found hidden under the defendant's bedroom mattress at his Stratford Court home.
Mendez claimed during interviews he didn't know the three shooters, but still drove them to the apartment complex because they'd called him and asked to be taken there. Mendez claimed he hid the weapons at the request of the other suspects.
If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.