Two suspects accused in the recent fatal stabbing of 23-year-old Ryan Williams at Atwater's Almond Tree restaurant pleaded not guilty to murder charges this week in Merced County Superior Court.
Nearly a dozen members of Williams' family and friends sat in the courtroom, shedding tears and filled with grief.
"My son went out on a Thursday night for karaoke," said Williams' mother. "He wasn't into getting into any trouble with anyone. He was there to laugh and have a good time with his friends."
Defendants Miguel Rivera, 27, and Cindy Maciel, 22, appeared briefly during Monday's arraignment hearing. Maciel grinned and talked with a fellow inmate moments before the court hearing. Rivera said little during the hearing, only to answer questions by Judge Mark Bacciarini.
The pair are also charged with assault with a deadly weapon, along with enhancements, such as committing a crime for the benefit of a criminal street gang.
Rivera is a parolee who was previously convicted of robbery.
According to witnesses, Williams had been with friends the night of Oct. 26 at the 490 Sycamore Ave. restaurant. Rivera approached and asked if they belonged to a gang, according to the police report.
The group of friends told Rivera they didn't belong to a gang and a fight broke out. Williams and his friend Guadalupe Alvarez were stabbed. A bouncer who tried to break up the fight suffered a minor stab wound to his hand, according to police reports.
Williams died and Alvarez survived.
The victim's family members on Monday said he had no gang ties. Atwater police and prosecutors in the Merced County district attorney's office have both said there have been no indication Williams was ever involved in a gang.
Williams' friends and family members asked not to have their names revealed out of fear of retaliation because of the case's gang overtones. They described Williams as a sociable person who made friends easily and an avid skateboarder.
His funeral service was held Friday at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Atwater, attracting more than 300 people, according to family.
The victim was a week away from moving to San Diego, having accepted a job there.
"My son Ryan was very much an outgoing person," Williams' father said through tears Monday. "He would befriend anyone. And from all walks of life. He brought nothing but love to anybody who was around him."
According to Williams' mother, her son wasn't even involved in the fight, but that he had stepped in the break it up when he was attacked.
"He was actually trying to calm down the situation," she said. "My son obviously witnessed his friend being stabbed and jumped in like any hero would. And in trying to protect his friend gave his life."
City Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.