May 23, 2014

Defendant pleads guilty in fatal shooting of Modesto store clerk

A 26-year-old Merced man pleaded guilty Friday to first-degree murder in the shooting of a store clerk during a 2009 attempted robbery in Modesto.

A Merced man pleaded guilty Friday to first-degree murder in the shooting of a store clerk during an attempted robbery in Modesto.

Mark Burgess, 26, agreed to a plea deal that includes a sentence of 28 years to life in prison for killing 28-year-old Harinder Sanghera. Sanghera was gunned down Dec. 4, 2009, while working at the Gas N Shop Market in the 800 block of South Ninth Street.

Burgess had pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, but he changed his mind and avoided a trial scheduled to start June 2. Had a jury convicted him, Burgess would have faced a maximum sentence of life in prison without parole.

His co-defendant, 25-year-old Ernesto Morales Jr., in September pleaded no contest to first-degree murder, but that charge will be reduced to second-degree murder under an agreement to fully cooperate with the prosecution in the case against Burgess. Morales likely would have testified in Burgess’ trial.

Authorities indicated Burgess fired the gun during the botched robbery, and Morales was not armed. Morales’ plea deal includes a sentence of 15 years to life in prison.

An enhancement for using a gun in Sanghera’s death was added to Burgess’ murder charge and lengthened his sentence. Prosecutors dropped an attempted robbery charge against each defendant as part of their plea deals.

On Friday morning, Deputy District Attorney John R. Mayne told the judge that the defendant gave a full confession, and the prosecution would have no trouble proving to a jury that Burgess committed the crime.

Mayne consulted with his supervisors at the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office and spoke with the victim’s family about the plea deal. He said they were all in agreement that this was the appropriate resolution.

Statements made in court during a hearing last year indicated the defendants drove from Merced to Modesto to commit the crime. Sanghera was a few weeks shy of his 29th birthday when he was killed that afternoon while working behind the front counter at his family’s convenience store.

The store was on the south end of a commercial strip lined with auto repair shops, industrial supply businesses, liquor stores and motels.

Sanghera was known to start tabs for customers who didn’t have enough money, and never got into any arguments with people at the store. His family posted photos of Sanghera and sketches of the suspects, hoping to find those responsible.

Nearly two years after the fatal shooting, Burgess and Morales were in custody.

Stanislaus Superior Court Judge Dawna Reeves scheduled Burgess to return to court July 30 to be formally sentenced. Mayne told the judge that Sanghera’s family members were expected to speak in court about his death during the July sentencing hearing.

Morales has not been formally sentenced, either. He is scheduled to return to court Tuesday. It’s likely that Morales will be sentenced on July 30 as well.

Both defendants remain in custody at the Stanislaus County Jail.

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