Four men headed to trial in woman's burning death

A judge has decided that ample evidence exists to try four men accused of burning a 27-year-old woman to death in 2007.

Merced County Superior Court Judge Carol Ash reached her decision Monday in the preliminary hearing of Alvaro Montanez Reyes, 28, of Livingston; Omar Cebrero, 19, of Turlock; Luis Alberto Valencia, 25, of Delhi; and Urbano Ortega, 27, of Livingston.

The men are accused of kidnapping Livingston resident Rosa Avina the night of Oct. 23, 2007, taking her to a remote location in Ballico, dousing her with gasoline and burning her alive because they suspected here of stealing drugs from Cebrero's brother.

Avina, who was burned over more than 60 percent of her body, died in a hospital two days later.

The men have pleaded not guilty to charges of first-degree murder, kidnapping for ransom or extortion, torture and aggravated mayhem.

During Monday's hearing, Ash also decided that enough evidence exists to try the men on charges of first-degree murder with special circumstances for kidnapping, torture, burglary, robbery and mayhem. The special circumstances would allow prosecutors to pursue the death penalty.

Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II said it's probably unlikely his office will seek the death penalty, because the men do not all have extensive criminal backgrounds.

Morse said his office will review the evidence in the case and talk with Avina's family before reaching a decision. "There's a lot of factors we need to consider," Morse said.

Regardless, Morse said the four men definitely face life in prison.

All the defendants have separate attorneys and require the services of Spanish language interpreters in court. A fifth defendant in the case, Luis Vazquez of Delhi, testified against the other men in January and pleaded guilty to first-degree burglary of an occupied residence and kidnapping, in exchange for nine years, four months in prison.

The preliminary hearing was held in January, but the judge held off ruling in the case until Monday. Cebrero, Valencia, Ortega and Reyes are being held at the Merced County Jail without bail.