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Burning-murder suspects face judge

Merced County Superior Court Judge Hugh Flanagan continued arraignments Tuesday afternoon for four men charged in the Oct. 24 murder of Rosa Avina, 27, of Livingston.

Omar Cebrero, 28, of Turlock; Urbano Ortega, 27, and Alvaro Reyes, 28, both of Livingston; and Luis Valencia, 24, of Delhi, will reappear for their continued video arraignment at 3 p.m. Thursday in Department 9 of the court.

Public Defender Wayne Eisenhart told Flanagan his office has conflicts in representing the men, who qualify for a public defender's service. That means contract public defenders or private attorneys will need to be retained to represent the men. All are being held in Merced County Jail in lieu of $1.6 million bail each.

Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II said it will take a couple of days to sort out the representation issues. Cebrero, Ortega, Reyes and Valencia, incarcerated at the downtown jail and John Latorraca Adult Correctional Facility, appeared on a television linkup between the court and jails for the courtroom proceedings.

Two people who are witnesses to events leading up to the Avina murder already are represented by the Public Defender's Office on other matters. Therefore, it's impermissible under state law for his office to represent any of these people, Eisenhart said.

Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin said last week Avina was murdered because of $750 worth of marijuana and crystal methamphetamine she stole two weeks previously from the men. She was bound, gagged and burned alive in a remote location on South Avenue in Ballico.

Pazin said Avina was kidnapped when she appeared at a bogus home invasion in Turlock. She was doused with a flammable liquid and set on fire Oct. 24; she died two days later in the burn unit at Santa Clara Valley Burn Center in San Jose.

The sheriff's department Major Crimes Unit and Special Tactics and Reconnaissance team officers served eight search warrants during their hunt for Avina's killers. A fifth man, Renulfo Ortega, 23, of Livingston, was arrested on a charge of being an accessory to murder and conspiracy.

The suspects have been characterized as members of a mid-level drug trafficking organization. Another suspect, Luis Vasquez, 18, of Delhi, was later arrested on charges of murder, kidnapping, torture, mayhem and conspiracy in connection with Avina's death.

Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at 209-385-2485 or

dyawger@mercedsun-star.com.

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