A man dubbed "Night Owl" by the authorities was sentenced to 58 years to life in prison Friday, the maximum term Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Marie Silveira could hand down to a former gang member who shot and killed a stranger because he wore red sweat pants.
As she imposed the sentence, the judge stressed the senselessness of the shooting death of Reuben "Joey" Neuman, who was targeted as he walked his bicycle on P Street in Newman on July 10, 2004.
Cesar Melgoza Perez, 21, and five other Sureño gang members were heading to a party when they spotted Neuman, suspected that he might be a Norteño, and decided to pick a fight. The boys surrounded Neuman, then punched and kicked him until he lay lifeless in a gutter.
Perez pulled out a .380-caliber Beretta and fired seven times as his friends ran back to their cars. The judge said Perez, who was apprehended in Mexico years after the shooting, deserves the stiffest possible punishment because he had a blood lust that could not be satisfied with a mere beating.
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"You will have a very long time to think about what kind of a man does something like this," Silveira said.
Perez was convicted of murder, assault and using a gun in the commission of a crime at the close of a two-month trial in March.
It was the second trial in Neuman's death.
The district attorney's office took four co-defendants to trial in the summer of 2006, but Perez was notably absent. The case hinged upon the testimony from a fifth co-defendant, who was given a plea deal in exchange for his testimony. Jurors were unable to reach verdicts.
In the first trial, a prosecutor argued that the men should have known that death was the natural and probable consequence of their assault on Neuman, but jurors told the court they could not agree on an assault charge and did not even consider a murder charge.
After that defeat, investigators tracked Perez to Uruapan, a small town 175 miles west of Mexico City. He was arrested and extradited to California in February 2007.
In the second trial, the prosecutor gave deals to three co-defendants who said Perez was the triggerman, instigating a fight and pulling out a gun after an assault was over. The remaining defendants are scheduled for trial Aug. 11.
Jurors heard from neighbors who saw the assault, which took place about 10:20 p.m., but could not identify the participants.
The case was notable for its violence and lack of motive. The defendants didn't have any personal beef with Neuman, but they associated with a Sureño gang that wears blue while Neuman had ties to a Norteño gang that wears red.
Perez, who dropped out of the gang and earned a high school equivalency diploma in jail, addressed the court before he was sentenced.
He said he fell in with the gang, which later abandoned him, because he had a troubled family and was looking for acceptance. He said he looks forward to the appeals process, adding that the facts are not as black and white as a prosecutor argued. And he apologized to Neuman's family.
"If I could change any part of what has happened, I would," Perez said.
Neuman's parents, Alan and Patricia Day, moved to another town in Northern California after their son's funeral, to steer their remaining children from the gang lifestyle.
They told the court that they could never forgive the man who took their son's life, then addressed Perez, telling him that generations of their family will keep tabs on him, to make sure that he never gets parole.
"Every time you see a shadow in a crack in your cell, that's me, watching you," Alan Day said.
Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2338.