Sentencing must wait for defendant in Modesto double-homicide

A Ceres man convicted of murder two years ago will wait at least another two months before he can be sentenced for his role in a north Modesto gang-related shooting.

A jury in September 2012 found Kelly Valle, Eric Arguello and Victor Zapien guilty of two counts of first-degree murder for the shooting of Christopher Diaz, 20, of Modesto and Mark Ochoa, 19, of Ceres. Authorities have said the defendants were were part of a group of Norteño gang members responsible for the murders.

The three defendants also were convicted of participating in a criminal street gang and two counts of attempted murder, one of those charges stemming from shots fired at a police officer.

Arguello and Zapien were each sentenced last month to 172 years to life in prison for the shooting, which resulted in a high-speed police chase in which shots were fired.

Valle, 30, was scheduled to be sentenced earlier this month, but now he has a new attorney. His former defense attorney, Frank Carson, is no longer on the case because of a conflict of interest that emerged last month. Carson had represented Valle through the trial and until this month.

The court has appointed defense attorney John Hillenbrand to represent Valle. The attorney appeared in court with his client Thursday morning.

Hillenbrand told the judge that he has received three crate-loads of documents related to the 5-year-old case, but he has not yet received a transcript of the 2012 trial. Hillenbrand needs to review the case and decide with his client whether to file a motion for a new trial, which must happen before the defendant is sentenced.

Stanislaus Superior Court Judge Nancy Ashley scheduled Valle to return to court Sept. 16. The defendant remains in custody at the Stanislaus County jail.

A fourth defendant in the double-homicide case, David Ferrel, is scheduled to stand trial Oct. 20. Ferrel also remains in custody at the jail.

The shooting occurred shortly after midnight Aug. 31, 2009, in front of Diaz’s home in the 2600 block of Maxine Drive, north of Floyd Avenue and west of Coffee Road.

Authorities say Diaz and Ochoa were shot dead simply because they disrespected a high-ranking Norteño gang member, Valle. The prosecutor argued that the defendants intended to execute Diaz and Ochoa that night. A forensic pathologist testified that it’s possible Ochoa was shot while he was on his knees, and it’s clear Diaz was shot five times in the back.

Defense attorneys told the jurors that the defendants were looking to settle a dispute without violence and returned fire only to defend themselves during the deadly confrontation. Valle testified that Ochoa fired first at him, but missed him from about 3 to 5 feet away.