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November 25, 2013

Search continues for suspects in two weekend homicides

Weekend shootings of three linked to gang and drug cartel, sheriff says.

Sheriff Mark Pazin on Monday described one of the two weekend homicides as an “execution-style” murder consistent with Mexican drug cartels and the other as “obviously” gang-related.

No arrests have been made in either case.

Pazin said there are no connections between the homicides from Friday and Saturday involving three Hispanic men in their 20s.

The Sheriff’s Department identified the victim of a fatal shooting in Planada as 24-year-old Eric Perez Guzman, a suspected gang member.

Investigators have not confirmed the identities of the two men found shot to death Saturday night in a pickup truck near Delhi. The sheriff said both victims apparently were tied to a sophisticated marijuana growing operation with suspected ties to a well-known Mexican drug cartel and both were in the United States illegally.

The Sheriff’s Department declined to comment on the number of shots fired or types of firearms used in both cases.

Guzman was shot in the head about 8:30 p.m. Thursday in the 9300 block of Bigler Drive in Planada and died the next day at a Modesto hospital.

“If you live by the gang lifestyle, you die by the gang lifestyle,” Pazin remarked at a news conference Monday morning. “We believe it was gang-related on this particular incident and, as usual, no one saw nothing and no one has come forward to help us.”

The Sheriff’s Department declined to say whether investigators believe Guzman was killed by a rival gang or by members of his own gang. Pazin said Guzman has a history with law enforcement and was well known to deputies.

According to Merced County Court records, Guzman pleaded no contest in 2009 to a misdemeanor count of unlawful sex with a minor more than three years younger and was sentenced to two years of probation. He pleaded no contest April 17 earlier this year to a misdemeanor count of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol and served 10 days in jail.

Pazin said Guzman had a young son.

Deputies have received even less public cooperation in the double-homicide from Saturday night outside Delhi, Pazin said.

A passerby spotted a pickup truck about 11:30 p.m. straddling the divider line on Harding Avenue, about 200 yards from Merced Avenue, according to Deputy Delray Shelton, a Sheriff’s Department spokesman.

Pazin described the assault as “a very precise, calculated and message-driven” execution.

“The driver still had his foot on the parking brake; the truck was in reverse,” Pazin said.

Numerous shots had been fired into the truck, shattering the rear and driver’s side windows, killing both men, who were said to be in their mid-20s. To protect the investigation, authorities declined to elaborate on specific details at the scene.

Deputies believe the men had been in the United States about three months during the marijuana harvest season. Investigators are working with Mexican authorities to confirm the identities of both victims.

Investigators followed the trail to a home with an unmarked address in the area of Letteau Avenue and Hilltop Street and found two women there who confirmed the men may have lived there but claimed not to know either man’s name, authorities said.

Pazin acknowledged difficulties in confirming the limited information and said that was a challenge of working with “the seedy underbelly of the underworld.”

At the home, deputies found evidence of a marijuana growing and distribution operation, the sheriff said.

Pazin praised the efforts of his investigators but said public cooperation would be critical in both cases.

“We do everything we can to try and break the cycles of drug and gang influences,” Pazin said.

There have been 27 homicides this year in Merced County, 17 of which have occurred in the Sheriff’s Department’s jurisdiction, Pazin said.

Anyone with information regarding either shooting is asked to call (209) 385-7445. Tips are confidential and callers may remain anonymous.

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