MERCED -- Rosa Avina was murdered over $750 worth of drugs, Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin said Wednesday, and five people have been arrested in connection with her savage death.
Four people have been charged with murder in the Oct. 24 killing in which the 27-year-old Livingston woman was bound, gagged and burned alive. Another man is being held as an accessory.
Avina was killed in retaliation for taking marijuana and an "eight-ball" of crystal methamphetamine two weeks before, Pazin said at an afternoon news conference.
Avina's family members and friends said they were glad to hear arrests have been made in the case and described her as a fun-loving, considerate person.
Pazin said Avina was duped into going willingly from Livingston to a house on Clifford Avenue in Turlock, where a home invasion robbery was staged. It was at this point Avina was bound and taken in the early morning hours to a remote South Avenue location in Ballico, doused with a flammable liquid and set on fire. Burned beyond recognition, Avina walked nearly a mile before collapsing. She died two days later in a burn unit at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose.
"We have lowered the bar on what a life is worth," Pazin said. "She met them a couple weeks previous and allegedly ripped them off. They are ruthless."
Arrested on charges of murder, con- spiracy, mayhem, torture and kidnapping were Alvaro Montanez Reyes, 28, of Livingston; Omar Cebrero, 28, of Turlock; Luis A. Valencia, 24, of Delhi; and Urbano M. Or-tega, 27, of Livingston.
Renulfo M. Ortega, 23, of Livingston is being held as an accessory to murder and on a conspiracy charge and unrelated narcotics warrant, said deputy Paul Barile, Merced County Sheriff's Department spokesman. Those arrested were characterized as members of a midlevel drug trafficking organization with no central ringleader.
"It (the home invasion) was a ruse to get Rosa out of the area; she was basically kidnapped," Pazin said. "This had nothing to do with her personal life. Regardless of lifestyle, no one deserves this type of demise. It was the barbaric drug trade in Merced County which has spilled into Stanislaus County and will go full circle to Fresno County. This was a convoluted case and a demanding investigation."
Pazin drew parallels between Avina's death and the murder of a man on Santa Fe Drive in the Ballico area in August and a May case in which a man's burned body was found in an abandoned Gustine barn. He did not say whether the cases were related.
Officers have yet to "connect the dots" in these cases but can't discount possible ties, he said. Merced County is a hotbed of meth production, and drug traffickers don't know jurisdictional boundaries and operate over a wide area of the San Joaquin Valley.
Eight search warrants served
Avina's family understandably is upset over losing a family member and is trying to work through this tragedy, the sheriff said.
Investigation of Avina's murder took the department's Special Tactics and Reconnaissance team and Major Crimes Unit officers to Turlock, Ballico, Delhi and Livingston. Eight search warrants were served during the investigation.
Avina's longtime friend Olivia Ramos of Atwater said she didn't deserve what happened to her. Ramos had known Avina since she was in eighth grade and they went to Atwater High School together.
"She was fun, full of life. She liked to make people laugh and she was a clown trying to cheer us up," Ramos said. Avina talked to Ramos about a week before her death and had visited Ramos' children about two weeks before the incident.
Avina's hero in life was her mother, Isabel Avina, Ramos said. Avina was part of a group of girls who kept in touch since school days. The tallest of the group, Avina was jokingly called "Mom" by her friends, Ramos said.
She said Avina liked all kinds of music and dancing. Avina's brother, Felipe Avina of Atwater, was glad to hear arrests were made in connection with his sister's murder.
"It's nice to know these animals won't be on the streets anymore," he said. "This (murder) doesn't make sense to me and was a heinous crime."
Avina was a fun-loving person who was happy to be alive and never hurt anybody. Felipe Avina said he last saw his sister a couple of months ago at a relative's birthday party.
Marina Avina, Rosa's sister, said she was glad somebody has been caught and hopes justice will be done. She declined to comment further.
Reyes remains in Merced County Jail in lieu of $1 million bail. Cebrero, Valencia and the Ortegas are being held without bail, according to a corrections official.