A fight that broke out over gang graffiti, then escalated into a war of words and ended in a shooting, will send two Modesto men to prison, probably for life.
After deliberating for three days in Stanislaus County Superior Court, 12 jurors who heard four weeks of testimony said Pablo Lopez, 20, is guilty of first-degree murder, and Daniel Joseph Martinez, 22, is guilty of second-degree murder.
The jury also said Lopez is guilty of using a gun in a commission of a crime and concluded that both men acted on behalf of a street gang when they confronted Jefte Garcia as he spray-painted a black line through a Norteño slogan scribbled on the sidewalk in front of his south Modesto home.
A prosecutor praised the verdict, adding that the case only makes sense in the gang world, where threats and disputes can lead to cycles of retaliation.
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"Killing over graffiti, when you think about it, that's absolutely ridiculous and hard to fathom," said Deputy District Attorney Tom Brennan. "But when put in the proper context, the gang context, it's absolutely predictable."
Witnesses said a war of words began at about 7 p.m. on Dec. 8, 2005, when Lopez and Martinez noticed that Garcia was spray-painting over the "YGL X4" on the sidewalk in front of his mother's home at 1310 Alamo Ave.
According to authorities, that notation stands for Young Gangster Locos, with X4 standing for the 14th letter of the alphabet -- N -- a common symbol used by Norteños.
Most of the gang disputes in the region stem from an ongoing war between Latino groups that affiliate with the Norteños, or northerners, who prefer red, and the Sureños, or southerners, who prefer blue.
Garcia, 17, may have associated with the Sureños and had recently returned to Modesto area after a stint in San Diego, the prosecutor said. Lopez and Martinez claimed to be Norteños during several contacts with police, and Martinez had a prior conviction for a gang-style assault.
Jair Garcia, also 17, came to his brother's side as angry words flew back and forth. Then Lopez and Martinez went to the nearby home of Kristian Sandoval, a friend who gave them a sawed-off shotgun and watched a spray of pellets hit Jefte Garcia in the right eye and right arm.
Jair Garcia, who called police and pointed the authorities toward his neighbor, Sandoval, didn't live long enough to testify. He was killed in a gang-style shooting two months later.
Sandoval took a plea deal, winning his freedom after two years behind bars by testifying against his former friends. He told the jury Lopez pulled the trigger as Martinez egged him on, with Martinez saying "just do it" shortly before Jefte Garcia was shot and killed.
Defense attorney Martin Baker argued that Lopez had an imperfect self-defense claim because he took action after the Garcia brothers threatened to "smoke" him. Defense attorney William Miller said his client, Martinez, took part in an argument but did not shoot anyone.
The jury sided with the prosecutor, who said Lopez and Martinez became the aggressors when they got the gun and took the dispute to a deadly level.
Lopez now faces 52 years to life in prison, while Martinez faces 40 years to life in prison. As documented gang members, they will do time at a maximum security prison. Judge Donald Shaver set a June 3 sentencing date.
The prosecutor said the case should be a wake-up call to young men who dabble with gangs and still have a chance to walk away, but he suspects that Lopez and Martinez will simply be forgotten as new soldiers take their place in the never-ending war over red and blue.
"They get life sentences, they're forgotten," Brennan said. "They're throwaways."
Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2338.