A Merced County judge ordered two suspected gang members to stand trial on murder charges after hearing evidence presented in court Wednesday.
Pete Valenzuela Jr., 28, has pleaded not guilty to three counts of murder. Co-defendant Patrick Ryan Cervantes, 24, has pleaded not guilty to two murder charges.
Both defendants are accused of shooting Luis Humberto Morales and Benjamin Samuel Mariano to death Dec. 1, 2012, outside an apartment complex in the 400 block of West 23rd Street. The victims, both 21, were shot multiple times in the face and head. They were pronounced dead at the scene, Detective Joe Deliman testified Wednesday.
“A reasonable person could have reasonable suspicion and probable cause to believe they’re responsible for the double homicide,” Judge Ronald W. Hansen said in his ruling Wednesday.
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Valenzuela faces an additional murder charge in connection with the death of Antonio David Jacobo, who was shot Oct. 10, 2012, in the 1300 block of West Sixth Street, according to Merced Superior Court records. Prosecutors have said Cervantes is not a suspect in Jacobo’s death.
During Wednesday’s preliminary hearing, prosecutors said ballistic evidence tied the same 9 mm handgun to all three killings. Matching 9 mm shell casings were found at both scenes, as well as the scene of an assault Dec. 23, 2012. The assault case has been charged separately, prosecutors said.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Harold Nutt said a total of 23 casings were analyzed and matched to the same gun by the state Department of Justice.
Officers testified that multiple people had seen Valenzuela holding and cleaning the gun. Valenzuela’s attorney, Barbara Hope O’Neill, noted the weapon was commonly “passed around” to other members of the same gang.
The defense also questioned the reliability of the witnesses, saying their statements to police regarding the defendants changed over time.
According to police, gang members Morales and Mariano were at the same party as the defendants on the night of the murders. The defendants had dropped out of a gang and joined one that rivaled the victims, police said.
Detective Reynaldo Alvarez testified as a street gang expert and said both defendants are known gang members with a long criminal history. Alvarez said because both defendants had left one gang and joined another, they faced many threats from their former gang and likely would have been targeted for death.
Prosecutors believe Valenzuela killed Jacobo in a dispute that was possibly marijuana-related or a personal issue involving one of Valenzuela’s relatives and Jacobo. Nutt said Valenzuela lived a short distance from the homicide scene and had access to a vehicle matching the description of the suspect’s vehicle.
“The truth is, we’re not going to know the specific motive (in Jacobo’s death),” Nutt told the judge. “But it was the same firearm that has been seen in his hands multiple times.”
O’Neill argued the evidence linking Valenzuela to Jacobo’s death was weak and asked the judge to consider throwing that charge out, but Hansen disagreed.
Both men were ordered to return to court April 17. If convicted on all charges, they could face life prison sentences.