Hatred for the Norteño street gang drove the son of a California Department of Justice special agent to shoot two men in the head while they were riding together in a car that ended up crashing into a peach orchard outside of Reedley in May 2014, a prosecutor said Thursday in opening statements in Eloy Romero Jr.’s murder trial.
Prosecutor William Lacy contends Romero was in the back seat of the car when he shot Joseph Blunt, a one-time shot caller for the Norteños, and George Duarte, an active member of the gang.
“Pop, pop. Pop, pop. Right in the back of the head, execution style,” Lacy told a Fresno County Superior Court jury.
In setting up his case, Lacy said Romero also was once a member of the Norteños, but he began to turn against the gang when a fellow gangster shot him in the buttocks in 2009.
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Romero’s hatred intensified when his mother, Socorro Perez, died in May 2013. Romero told others that the Norteño gang had murdered her. But Lacy said the claim was unfounded; Perez died of natural causes, or possibly from an overdose, he said.
Regardless of how she died, Perez’s death motivated her son to kill Blunt and Duarte around Mother’s Day, nearly a year after Perez’s death on May 9, 2013, at age 51, said Lacy.
Romero is charged with two counts of murder. If convicted, Romero, 26, faces life in prison without parole. Romero’s lawyer, Scott Baly, however, told the jury that his client is not guilty of the double murder.
Court records state that Romero – who has tattoos of a clown’s face with flames on his left shoulder, a cross on his right shoulder and Reedley across his abdomen – is a member of the Vario East Side Reedley street gang, which is aligned with the larger Norteño street gang. Known as “Goober,” Romero has a long rap sheet that includes arrests for guns, drugs and street terrorism, court records indicate.
His father, Eloy Romero, is a DOJ special agent supervisor in Fresno. The elder Romero has never talked about his son’s case publicly but is on the witness list.
Pop, pop. Pop, pop. Right in the back of the head, execution style.
Prosecutor William Lacy
The trial in Judge Houry Sanderson’s courtroom is expected to take up to six weeks.
Court records say Blunt had an assault conviction in Santa Clara County in 1994, and convictions in Fresno County for corporal injury and felony battery in 2007 and conspiracy to commit a crime and street terrorism in 2010. Duarte pleaded no contest in 2013 in Fresno County Superior Court to possession of a short-barrel shotgun and possession of marijuana for sale or transportation.
The case is unusual because the California Highway Patrol initially reported that Blunt, 38, of Santa Clara, and Duarte, 40, died in a car accident at Buttonwillow and Jefferson avenues in Reedley during the early hours of May 12, 2014. The crash scene is near Duarte’s home.
But during an autopsy, the Coroner’s Office discovered the two men had died of gunshot wounds.
In opening statements Thursday, Lacy said Blunt, who was driving, was shot twice in the right side of his head; Duarte was shot twice in the left side of his head. The muzzle of the gun was 2 feet away when it was fired, he said.
On May 11, 2014, Blunt, who was no longer in the gang, had gone to visit his children in Clovis, Lacy said. Later that evening, he drove to Duarte’s home in Reedley to pick him up.
A key piece of evidence, Lacy said, is Eloy Romero Jr.’s cellphone, which was discovered inside the overturned car. Romero’s cellphone had text messages between him and Blunt that said they were planning to get together in the late evening hours of May 11, 2014, Lacy told the jury.
After the killings, Romero, a frequent user of his cellphone, no longer uses it, and “drops off the face of the planet,” Lacy said.
But before he leaves the area, according to Lacy, Romero told his mother-in-law: “I’m in trouble. I did something stupid. I need to leave town.”
Romero first went to Lancaster. He later returned to Reedley. On June 11, 2014, sheriff’s detectives, with the help of the U.S. Marshals Office and Reedley Police Department, found Romero hiding in a home on E Street near Ninth Street in Reedley. He tried to escape out the back door, but was caught and arrested.
Lacy said Romero told detectives that he had just learned from his father that he was wanted for questioning and had planned to turn himself in. Romero also told detectives that he did meet up with Blunt and Duarte, and had gotten into the back seat of Blunt’s car, but that was on May 10, 2014.
Regarding his cellphone, Romero said it was in Blunt’s overturned car because he had sold it to Blunt to buy drugs, Lacy told the jury.
There is no smoking gun.
Defense attorney Scott Baly
Lacy said the two victims were killed by the same gun. Though the murder weapon was never recovered, Romero’s cellphone contained “a selfie” of him and a photograph of gun that is similar to the one that was used to kill the victims, Lacy told the jury.
“Eloy was close to his mother,” Lacy said. “He told several people that his mom was murdered and he blamed the Norteños for her death.”
In fact, Romero had a “hit list,” Lacy said.
But Baly, who is defending Romero, said Lacy’s theory of the killings is unfounded because there’s no evidence of a hit list. Baly also said Romero never confessed to killing Blunt and Duarte. In addition, the crime scene was compromised when the CHP allowed the crash vehicle to be towed to a wrecking yard before it was thoroughly inspected, Baly said.
“There is no smoking gun,” Baly told the jury.