Four suspected gang members have been charged with murder in the recent slaying of a 33-year-old Winton resident, the Merced County Sheriff’s Department announced Friday.
Nine people with ties to a Winton-area gang were arrested over the course of a four-month investigation into the murder of Francisco Pena, Detective Sgt. Jeff Coburn said Friday during a news conference.
Pena belonged to the same well-known Winton gang as the suspects, according to detectives. Coburn said Pena was killed as the result of a power struggle within the gang. His death was orchestrated Dec. 23 when Pena was “lured” to an apartment complex in the 6900 block of Myrtle Avenue and shot numerous times, Coburn said.
According to reports filed in Merced County Superior Court, detectives found shell casings at the scene “consistent with an SKS or AK-47-style assault rifle” and 12-gauge shotgun shells. Deputies declined to comment on the number of times Pena was shot.
Fernando Luna, 24; his brother Julian Luna, 31; Elias Vera, 21; all of Winton; and 17-year-old Ricardo Romo Jr., of Atwater, have all been charged with murder in connection with Pena’s death, according to court records.
Romo has been charged as an adult, Supervising Deputy District Attorney David Elgin confirmed.
Sheriff Tom Cavallero praised “outstanding police work” by the sheriff’s major crimes unit, particularly the work of Detectives Sam Sanchez and Ruben Orozco, the lead investigators in the “massive case.”
Victim ‘shot multiple times’
Pena was contacted on the night he died by at least four Winton street gang members who asked to meet him in the parking lot of an apartment complex on Myrtle Avenue, according to court documents.
While waiting for Pena, the court report says, Fernando Luna went into a nearby apartment and returned with an SKS rifle and climbed onto the roof of the apartment complex.
Julian Luna was armed with a .357 revolver; others, whose names were redacted, were armed with a shotgun and a .40-caliber Glock with a 30-round magazine, the report says.
Pena climbed over a fence separating two apartment complexes where the group was waiting in an alley. Someone yelled out, “Get him, get him,” and a gunshot was heard, then three more, the report says.
According to deputies’ reports, Julian Luna was the first to fire. The man with the shotgun fired at least four times, all as Pena tried to run away down the alley. Then someone shouted “(Fernando Luna) shot him down with the SKS,” the report says.
On Friday, Coburn said detectives believe Pena was “possibly” armed during the shooting.
Afterward, four suspects fled the area and three left Merced County, the Sheriff’s Department said.
Romo was arrested Jan. 31 by sheriff’s detectives. Vera was arrested Feb. 8 by the Fremont Police Department. Fernando Luna and Julian Luna were arrested Feb. 26 by the U.S. Marshals Service.
Five more arrested
During the investigation, deputies said, they arrested five more suspected members of the same gang on weapons, drug and gang charges.
Those arrested were: Alejandro Fierro, 31; Orasio Fierro, 22; Jose Vera, 19; Jessie Saucedo, 32; and Jorge Saucedo, 29, all of Winton. Alma Marmolejo, 19, of Turlock was briefly detained and deputies plan to seek drug-related charges against him, the Sheriff’s Department said.
None of those arrested in the second group have been directly connected to the homicide, officials said.
Deputies also seized assault rifles, machine pistols and other firearms, along with money, marijuana and other gang paraphernalia, the Sheriff’s Department said.
Pazin remark angers family
A day after deputies found Pena’s bullet-riddled body in the alley, then-Sheriff Mark Pazin called a press conference and referred to the victim as “a bad egg” who “died in a dirty, rotten alley.”
Pazin’s remarks infuriated the victim’s family, especially Pena’s mother, Maria. “(Pazin) treated my son like he was nothing. What he said wasn’t right,” Maria Pena said Friday.
Pazin, who has since left the Sheriff’s Department for a position with the governor’s office, could not be reached for comment Friday.
Pena’s cousin, Denise Bond, said Pazin’s remarks hurt Pena’s three young children, two girls ages 8 and 4 and a 2-year-old boy. “(Pazin) made it sound like (Pena) was just some gang member and he wasn’t just a gang member,” Bond said. “My whole family; we’re not just a family of gang members. We’re hurting over this, we’re all hurting.”
The family said Pena was a “dropout” gang member who hadn’t been active in more than a decade. They described him as “a family man” who had “turned his life around.”
“He was an artist. He was strong. Anyone who plays dolls on the floor with his daughter isn’t just something bad; he was a good person,” sister Leticia Caro said.
Maria Pena said she is grateful for the Sheriff’s Department’s breakthrough in the case. However, she denied any direct gang connections in the case, saying her son was killed “over an issue that was personal.”
She said she hopes “the ones that did it” receive life prison sentences. “I don’t wish them death, that won’t bring my son back,” Maria Pena said. “But no amount of time in prison will bring him back, either.”