State

Ex-gang banger's views on the stand

A Modesto man spent Wednesday on the witness stand in Stanislaus County Superior Court, telling a jury about the day he and his friends shot into Oregon Park, killing a teenager because she was wearing a red blouse.

Mario Garcia, 21, agreed to testify against his former buddies to save himself from the life sentence a murder conviction can bring. In the process, he gave the jury a peek into the minds of youngsters who join street gangs such as the Norteños, who claim red, or the Sureños, who claim blue.

The young man said he and four other Sureños, or Southerners, were driving around the airport neighborhood in a white Chevrolet Blazer about 5 p.m. on May 26, 2004, when they spotted someone in the park wearing red.

He said one or two of the boys in the car started screaming Sureño slogans, such as "puro sur," or pure Southerner, before the gunfire rang out. He said his homeboys were at war with the Norteños, or Northerners, and had to retaliate because they had been disrespected.

"We can't look like punks if we represent something," Garcia said.

Several shots from a .22-caliber rifle rang out and one of them pierced the heart of 17-year-old Ernestina "Tina" DeJesus Tizoc. The junior at Johansen High School was not a gang member, and had been sitting on a table in the park under a gazebo, talking with several friends.

The boys, who had been smoking methamphetamine, were mad because some Norteños came at them with bats the night before, chasing them into their friend's house near the park, then smashing out the back passenger-side windows of the Blazer.

About an hour before Tina was shot, the Sureños borrowed a rifle so they could fight back. They didn't have a plan, but agreed that something had to be done.

"Just do whatever it takes to hurt them or take them out. If you have to kill them, oh well, they're your enemies," Garcia said.

After the shooting, the boys left the Blazer in an alley and got a ride to a dairy on the outskirts of Modesto, where they had a barbecue and cooked some hot dogs.

They did not know Tina had been killed until they returned home hours later.

A day later, they were under arrest. They are being tried as adults, though they were minors at the time of the shooting.

Garcia said Rigoberto Moreno, 20, and Pedro Castillo, 19, both of Modesto, were in the Blazer when the fatal shots rang out. Both are on trial, facing murder, conspiracy and gang charges.

Garcia said Edgar Barajas, 20, of Modesto was the shooter and Jesus Rodriguez, 19, of Patterson, was the driver. They will be tried separately.

Defense: It was an accident

A defense attorney said the shooting was accidental. He suggested that Barajas was trying to scare the Norteños by firing into the air, but lost his balance when Rodriguez unexpectedly accelerated, forcing the barrel of the rifle downward.

Garcia said Barajas was trying to shoot at people, though he may not have wanted to kill them. Garcia has been in custody since his arrest 3½ years ago and is expected to gain his freedom after he testifies at both trials.

The prosecution's star witness had trouble recalling basic details about himself, such as how old he was when he dropped out of Hanshaw Middle School.

Garcia said he is telling the truth about the shooting, but seemed nonchalant as he suggested that such killings are a fact of life in his neighborhood. He said Norteños were fair game when he was a Sureño, though he would not have shot at women or children.

He said gang members don't get too upset if innocent bystanders get caught in the crossfire.

"If I hit anybody else, oh well," said Garcia, who said he has dropped out of the gang. "I'm gang banging. I've gotta do what I've gotta do."

Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at sherendeen@modbee.com or 578-2338.

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