A January jury trial has been set for a 37-year-old Atwater man accused of gunning down his former cellmate last year outside a city park.
David J. Lastra has pleaded not guilty to murder in connection with the slaying of 27-year-old Richard Valentine, who was shot and killed Oct. 20, 2015, on the street in the 1200 block of Park Street, just outside Atwater Memorial Ballpark.
He briefly appeared in court Thursday before Judge Ronald Hansen.
Lastra, who remains in custody at the Merced County jail on more than $2.1 million bail, is scheduled to return to court Jan. 9 for a trial readiness conference and the jury trial is slated for Jan. 31, the Merced County District Attorney’s Office confirmed.
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According to Merced Superior Court documents, Lastra was wanted for questioning in October 2015 in connection with a kidnapping case that occurred in Fresno. Valentine, who once served jail time with Lastra, was working with state parole agents to locate the Atwater man.
Valentine apparently had arranged to meet with Lastra on the street on the pretext of repaying a debt and parole agents were stationed a short distance away. However, reports say, Valentine was shot and the shooter had fled the scene before the agents arrived. Lastra quickly was identified as the prime suspect in the shooting and was arrested the following morning, allegedly hiding out at a home on East Bellevue Road in Atwater.
It’s never been clear whether Lastra knew Valentine was working with law enforcement at the time of the slaying.
In their reports, Atwater police officers described several issues between the men, but have not indicated whether they believe there was a clear or specific motive.
Lastra told investigators that “Richard ran his mouth, and talked about Lastra’s Nuestra Familia gang involvement among other things, ‘it was just Richard’s time to go,’ ” and also told detectives “I knew I was going to kill him so it wasn’t going to be a big secret,’ ” according to the reports.
Lastra’s attorney could not be reached for comment Thursday. Family members have described Lastra as a “good person who looks out for his family.”
Valentine’s family members have described him as a warm, caring person, who, while having his struggles with the law, was kind and generous and deserves justice.
Rob Parsons: 209-385-2482