A jury on Friday found four men guilty of murder for their involvement in a deadly home-invasion robbery in Modesto, which authorities said was carried out by a Norteño street gang regiment that was looking for drugs and cash but targeted the wrong victims.
The robbers thought they were hitting a notorious drug house, but the dealers had moved out and the cash and drugs were not there. Testimony indicated the robbers confronted five victims, including Julio Jimenez, who was shot in the back three times as he pleaded for mercy.
Along with the murder charge, defendants Jaime Cerpa, 32, Phillip Lopez, 19, Angel Del Villar, 21, and Hector Rocha Jr., 23, were convicted of home-invasion robbery and robbery.
Enhancements for committing the robberies for the benefit of the Norteño gang and the use of a gun resulting in Jimenez's death will lengthen their prison sentences. They each face a maximum sentence of 50 years to life in prison.
Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Marie Silveira tentatively scheduled a sentencing hearing March 12 for the defendants. The four, however, are scheduled to return to court for a March 6 pretrial hearing, when their attorneys can ask the judge for more time to file a motion for a new trial before they're sentenced.
The jury of seven women and five men deliberated for about two days until they reached a verdict Friday afternoon. The jurors decided the defendants were guilty of murder, even though they didn't fire the shots that killed Jimenez.
Domingo Becerra, 25, has admitted in court that he participated in the robbery and shot Jimenez after the victim failed to escape.
"I think he was praying, saying, 'I'm sorry,' " Becerra told the jury about not fully understanding what Jimenez said in Spanish moments before he was shot.
Becerra has agreed to a plea deal with a prison sentence of 25 years to life in exchange for his testimony against the others in this robbery and two other gang-related trials. He testified that his former fellow gang members have marked him for death and he is not confident he will survive, even in prison.
Two others, Daniel Flores and Aquiles Virgen, also testified in the trial against the other defendants in exchange for plea deals. They pistol-whipped one of the victims, Becerra testified. Virgen will receive 15 years to life in prison, and Flores will receive 10 years in prison.
Modesto police gang investigator Sean Martin testified that the Norteño regiment was linked to about 20 other robberies in the region. He said the March 24, 2010, home-invasion robbery was the first time one of its robberies resulted in a death.
Becerra testified that gang leaders needed cash, so they rounded up the regiment at a Keyes home to plan and ready themselves for the robbery. Deputy District Attorney Tom Brennan argued that the Keyes home was a hide-out for leaders of Nuestra Familia, the prison gang that oversees activity of all Norteño regiments on the street.
It was Becerra who offered up the home in the 600 block of Thrasher Avenue in Modesto's airport neighborhood. He told the jury that he knew drug dealers had lived there and thought there would plenty of cash and methamphetamine to steal.
Becerra said the robbers armed themselves and partially covered their faces with torn clothing. They drove to the Thrasher Avenue home and encountered a vehicle that had just pulled up.
Inside the vehicle were Jimenez, a woman and another man. They were there to buy drugs, also mistakenly believing that dealers still lived in the home. The prosecutor told the jury that a man and his 3-year-old daughter had just moved in and were inside asleep, not knowing violent chaos would unfold around them.
Eventually, Jimenez and his companions were held at gunpoint in the back yard as two other gunmen searched the house and confronted the residents.
Rocha testified that he fired three shots into the ceiling, but the residents were not hit. After shots were fired inside, Jimenez tried to jump over a fence. The gunmen pulled him back. Becerra, who was upset about the botched robbery, said he shot Jimenez.
Bob Wildman, Rocha's defense attorney, told the jury that Becerra's actions had nothing to do with the robbery. He said Becerra had to go back to gang leaders empty-handed and that his hopes for elevating his gang status were gone.
Rocha told the jury he was forced to commit the home-invasion robbery and that he tried to drink himself into an alcoholic stupor to avoid going.
Mark Sullivan, Angel Del Villar's defense attorney, argued that his client was not one of the robbers. He said some of the men apprehended identified Del Villar as one of the robbers much later, to fit the prosecution's theory and receive plea deals.
Alonzo Gradford, Cerpa's defense attorney, told jurors that Becerra changed his story to improve his plea deal, which would reduce his sentence from 50 years to life to 25 to life and guarantee he could serve his sentence in an Oklahoma prison. Becerra testified that Cerpa provided guns for the robbery and pulled clothing from his closet to disguise the robbers.
After the verdicts were announced, the prosecutor said no one should have been surprised with the trial's outcome.
"The community won big today. Four violent gang members are off the street forever," Brennan said. "This is the cost of doing business in the gang culture: death or life in prison for the lifestyle they chose to follow."
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2394.