Prosecutors drop charges for defendants accused of accessory in Newman cop killing

The Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office on Thursday morning dropped charges against four people accused of helping a man evade capture after the shooting death of Newman Police Cpl. Ronil Singh.

The defendants were expected to be released from the Stanislaus County Jail by Friday morning into the custody of federal authorities.

Deputy District Attorney Jeff Mangar told the judge that the charges against the defendants were being dismissed, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office was taking over their prosecution in federal court.

Paulo Virgen Mendoza has been charged with murder in Singh’s death. Mendoza is accused of killing Singh during a Dec. 26 traffic stop in Newman. Mendoza is still identified in jail records as Gustavo Perez Arriaga, an alias.

Mendoza’s girlfriend, Ana Leyde Cervantes, his brothers Conrado Virgen Mendoza and Adrian Virgen, and his co-worker Erik Razo Quiroz had pleaded not guilty to felony accessory charges in Stanislaus County.

On Thursday, the defendants entered the courtroom wearing jail inmate jumpsuits with shackled handcuffs on their wrists and ankles. They sat quietly as the prosecutor dropped the local charges. Stanislaus County sheriff’s deputies then ushered the defendants out of the courtroom at the end of the brief hearing.

Mangar has said the defendants now will face a more serious punishment under federal law. When making its decision, the District Attorney’s Office considered that state convictions on a charge of being an accessory to any crime — including murder — are no longer eligible for state prison terms, only local jail sentences, according to Mangar.

Newman Police Cpl. Ronil Singh was killed December 26th, 2018 during a traffic stop at Merced Street and Eucalyptus Avenue in Newman, Calif. Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department

Cervantes, Mendoza, Virgen and Quiroz are among seven defendants facing federal charges, accused of helping Paulo Virgen Mendoza slip through a police dragnet and try to escape into Mexico. After a 55-hour manhunt, Paulo Virgen Mendoza was captured near Bakersfield.

If convicted of the federal charge of conspiracy and aiding and abetting, harboring and shielding from detection an illegal alien, each defendant could face a maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison, according to a criminal complaint filed Jan. 2 in federal court.

Bernabe Madrigal Castaneda, Maria Luisa Moreno and Erasmo Villegas were arrested near Bakersfield along with Mendoza days after the deadly shooting. The Kern County District Attorney’s Office also chose to drop its local accessory charges because the defendants face more serious punishment under federal court, the Bakersfield Californian reported.

On Tuesday, Castaneda, Moreno and Villegas appeared in federal court in Fresno. Not guilty pleas to the federal charges were entered on their behalf, and they were scheduled to return to court Jan. 22.

As of Thursday afternoon, officials had not scheduled an arraignment hearing in federal court for Cervantes, Mendoza, Virgen and Quiroz. They remained in custody at the Stanislaus County Jail on a federal holding order, presumably to be transferred to federal custody by Friday.

The accessory defendants are accused of providing the murder suspect with changes of clothing, helping conceal his vehicle, driving him around to hide, disposing of the murder weapon, harboring him in their home and paying a human trafficker $400 to smuggle him into Mexico, according to an arrest affidavit by a Homeland Security special agent.

Out of the seven defendants, all but Moreno have admitted to entering the United States illegally, according to the affidavit filed in support of the federal criminal complaint. Local and federal authorities have said that Paulo Virgen Mendoza also entered the country illegally.

The prosecution of Mendoza in the murder case will remain in Stanislaus County. Mendoza on Thursday remained in custody without bail in the county jail. He now is scheduled to return to court Wednesday as the court tries to determine whether he is mentally fit to face criminal charges. His murder case remains suspended.

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Rosalio Ahumada writes news stories about criminal court cases in Stanislaus County for The Modesto Bee, issues related to immigration and immigrant communities and breaking news related to crime and public safety. From time to time, he covers the Modesto City Council meetings. He has worked as a news reporter in the Northern San Joaquin Valley since 2004.