Four suspects charged in connection with the death of a Newman police corporal made their first appearance in court Monday, while family members and a neighbor of the suspected shooter said they were shocked.
Family, friends and fellow officers of Newman Police Department Cpl. Ronil Singh filled nearly every seat in the left half of the courtroom gallery for the first court appearance of four of eight people charged in connection with his killing. On the right side were media and two people who came in support of the defendants.
“I feel very sorry; it is something that I never expected to happen in my family ... for someone to do something to hurt someone else’s family,” said Estefania Mendoza, who is the cousin of the suspected killer, Gustavo Perez Arriaga, and two of his alleged accomplices. ”It’s sad ... I am literally the only one here, and there’s a lot of family.”
She and a family friend traveled from Santa Cruz County for the arraignment of Arriaga’s girlfriend Ana Leyde Cervantes, 30; his brothers Conrado Virgen Mendoza, 34, and Adrian Virgen, 25; and his co-worker Erik Razo Quiroz, 35, who are charged with accessory after the fact.
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Authorities said they helped Arriaga, 32, in his efforts to flee to Mexico, destroyed evidence and lied to detectives after the shooting death of Singh in the early morning hours of Dec. 26 in Newman.
Arriaga, arrested Friday morning on suspicion of murder, will be arraigned Wednesday, as will three other alleged accomplices who were taken into custody at the home near Bakersfield where Arriaga was found 55 hours after Singh was killed.
Bernabe Madrigal Castaneda, 59, Ermasmo Villegas, 36, and Maria Luisa Moreno, 57, are expected to be charged with accessory after the fact, but prosecuted in Kern County since their involvement took place there.
Authorities say Arriaga shot Singh when he pulled him over on suspicion of driving under the influence near the intersection of Merced Street and Eucalyptus.
Few words inside court
During Monday’s appearance, Judge Sonny Sandhu entered pleas of not guilty on behalf of Cervantes, Virgen Mendoza, Virgen and Quiroz.
All four, through a Spanish-language court interpreter, listened to Sandhu read the charges against them and responded when they were addressed.
Other than “yes” or “no” answers, only Mendoza spoke when he appeared confused by the judge’s question about whether he needed to have the court appoint an attorney.
“I want this to get over with,” he said. “I haven’t been given one since this started.”
Eventually, Sandhu appointed attorneys for all four and scheduled them to return to court Wednesday afternoon.
He also granted Deputy District Attorney Jeff Mangar’s request to increase their bail from the scheduled amount of $25,000.
“They were trying to hide a known cop killer,” Mangar argued.
Sandhu increased the defendants’ bail to $100,000.
Singh’s wife wept during part of the proceedings. She and other family members, accompanied by law enforcement and officials from the District Attorney’s Office, left the court and went to a jury room after the hearing without talking to reporters.
Outside the courthouse, Estefania Mendoza said she wanted to attend the hearing to let her cousins know they are “not alone.”
And to Singh’s family, she said, “I am really sorry for their loss ... If I can do anything to support them, if I can show them my support in any type of way, I am more than (glad) to do it.”
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have lodged detainers on Arriaga and the four charged with accessory in Stanislaus County, said Deputy Royjindar Singh, a sheriff’s spokesman who is not related to Cpl. Singh. Officials have said all four are in the country illegally.
That means ICE agents would be notified if any of them were to be released and given time to come to the jail to take custody of them, Royjindar Singh said.
In addition to the immigration holds, two of the suspects — Virgen and Quioroz — have federal warrants for their arrest. Information about what the warrants are for was not available Monday.
Quioroz also has warrants out of Madera County for driving under the influence and stealing livestock.
Neighbors talk about Arriaga
Arriaga and Cervantes lived in the Martins Mobile Court along River Road, near Newman.
Neighbors said a young boy also lived with the couple in the trailer park along the San Joaquin River. Two residents said Arriaga was friendly, with one saying Arriaga helped him with a home repair. Both residents said he worked in construction, with the second resident adding that Arriaga worked in the Bay Area.
“He was a nice guy when he was sober,” said the second resident.
Mendoza, Arriaga’s cousin, said she was shocked when she saw his picture all over the news and on social media. She said she had to take another look to make sure it was him. She described Arriaga as a “very outgoing ... positive person.”
Arriaga has a history of alcohol-related offenses.
Christianson said at Friday’s news conference that Arriaga had two DUI arrests in the Madera-Chowchilla area.
According to the Madera County Superior Court clerk’s office, a Gustavo Perez Arriaga, with the same birth date as the homicide suspect, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor DUI with injury Sept. 26, 2014, from an Aug. 14, 2011, incident. The clerk’s office said a $5,000 bench warrant was issued after Arriaga failed to complete a first-time DUI offender program.
The CHP in Madera County corfirmed it cited a Gustavo Arriaga Perez with the same birth date as the homicide suspect, on Aug. 14, 2011, on suspicion of DUI and driving without a license or insurance.
The Madera clerk’s office also said a $15,000 bench warrant was issued Jan. 7, 2015, for a Gustavo Perez, with the same birth date as the suspect, for failing to appear at his arraignment in a misdemeanor DUI case from a June 5, 2014, incident.
The Chowchilla Police Department said it cited a Gustavo Perez Arriaga, with the same birth date as the suspect, on suspicion of misdemeanor DUI, speeding and driving without a license on June 5, 2014.
The Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department has said Arriaga uses several aliases.