Another case of red versus blue, with an innocent bystander caught in the middle, is expected to draw to a close Wednesday in Stanislaus County Superior Court, when a judge sentences a 25-year-old gang member to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Leopoldo Paul Velasquez of Modesto was convicted of four felonies at the close of a two-week trial in January, for firing five shots into a group of teenagers on July 10, 2006. The shooting took place at the corner of Ronald Avenue and Waring Way, just north of Briggsmore Avenue.
The authorities said Velasquez, a Norteño gang member, was trying to shoot at a Sureño rival who lived nearby but was not in the crowd.
Instead of killing a "scrap," Velasquez hit 17-year-old Jason Paul Bender, who was hanging out with some buddies about 1:30 a.m. on a hot summer night. Bender's buddies ran for cover when the bullets started flying, but the teen was hit in the torso and died almost immediately.
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His mother said her son knew the intended target and some of Velasquez's friends, because they lived in the same neighborhood, but he did not belong to a gang and probably didn't realize how dangerous gangs can be.
"We're not gang members," Barbara Bender said as she recalled the tragic night. "My kids can't help where they grew up."
Jason Bender, dubbed "chipmunk" by his family because he was a small boy, liked to fix cars, did odd jobs and landscaping and was working toward a high school diploma in a home study program.
His mother said she and her husband, who have lived in the central Modesto neighborhood for 23 years, used to assume that gang members would keep their rivalries to themselves. Now they worry that the Norteños who claim red or the Sureños who claim blue may open fire for no reason at all.
"We never thought we had to watch our backs," Bender said. "It was our neighborhood, too."
According to authorities, Velasquez was drinking with friends when he noticed his rival return home.
Bender's friends said the Sureño waved to them, then went inside.
Moments later, Velasquez was on the scene, shooting.
A witness saw Velasquez shortly before the shooting, heard shots, then saw several people, including Velasquez, flee the scene. Modesto police followed a trail from the house where Velasquez had been drinking to a Clayton Avenue home where Velas-quez lived.
Deputy District Attorney Wendell Emerson said the authorities found several guns in Velasquez's home, including the murder weapon. Velasquez also implicated himself in a videotaped interview that was played for the jury, because he told a detective that he shot into the air to scare the kids.
The two buddies who had been drinking with Velas-quez followed Velasquez to the shooting scene, but neither were charged with crimes. According to the prosecutor, one of them told the jury that he talked Velasquez out of taking revenge at the Sureño's house earlier in the evening, but couldn't stop him the second time.
"They didn't know that he was going to shoot," Emerson said.
The exact nature of the beef between Velasquez and the Sureño was unclear, but both sides told authorities about a previous shooting that was not reported to police. Velasquez was released from jail nine days before the shooting; he served time for drug possession for the purpose of sales.
After deliberating for two hours, a jury said Velasquez is guilty of first-degree murder, including two special circumstances related to his gang affiliation. That charge requires a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Jurors said Velasquez also is guilty of discharging a firearm, being a felon in possession of a firearm and participating in a criminal street gang. Last week, a defense attorney told the court that he could not find grounds to request a new trial.
Judge John G. Whiteside is expected to impose sentence Wednesday.
Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2338.