A Sanger man faces life in prison without parole after being found guilty of first-degree murder in the killing of 21-year-old David Vera during a party in a field eight years ago.
Victor Estrada, 29, showed no reaction when the verdict was announced Monday in Fresno County Superior Court. His family cried in the courtroom.
Vera’s family also cried, but it was tears of joy.
“We waited eight long years,” said Oswaldo Vera, the victim’s father. “This (verdict) sends a strong message to these punks that they can’t terrorize the community and get away with it.”
The jury of three men and nine women deliberated less than five hours before finding Estrada guilty. Because the jury found that the killing was during a drive-by shooting, Estrada faces life behind bars when he is sentenced on Jan. 13.
The killing happened in the early hours of July 7, 2007, during a party in a field east of the town of Minkler. The party had been advertised on social media and more than 100 people attended, including rivals from different gangs.
The verdict came after two weeks of testimony in Judge Edward Sarkisian Jr.’s courtroom and hinged on the account of a woman, who was a 16-year-old girl at the time of the killing, who testified that she saw Estrada pull the trigger.
Sal Sciandra, Estrada’s attorney, told the jury that the girl never got a good look at the shooter and gave sheriff’s officials conflicting accounts.
But his argument apparently wasn’t enough to to sway the jurors.
“There were people who were scared to testify,” prosecutor Brian Hutchins said after the verdict. “But they rose to the challenge and came to court.”
Hutchins told the jury that Vera was not a member of a street gang, but he had friends who were in the Bulldogs street gang.
Estrada associated with Sureño gang members, who are rivals of the Bulldogs gang, the prosecutor said.
There were people who were scared to testify, but they rose to the challenge and came to court.
Fresno County prosecutor Brian Hutchins
The party got out of control when one of Vera’s friends, Omar Miranda, who wore a red cap with a C on it to show his allegiance to the Chankla Bulldogs street gang, was wounded during a confrontation with a Sureño gang member, Hutchins said. Once Miranda was shot, chaos erupted as partygoers raced to their cars to leave.
Hutchins said Vera was directing traffic so his wounded friend could be taken to a hospital when he was shot five times by someone in a black Chrysler 300. The Chrysler later hit a green Jeep and crashed in a marshy field. The occupants of the Chrysler then ran.
Hutchins told the jury that Estrada had a motive to kill Vera: In high school, Estrada and Vera would fistfight, and Vera always won.
After the shooting sheriff’s detectives searched Estrada’s home and found his wet clothes and muddy shoes, Hutchins said. But Estrada escaped to Mexico.
The case went cold until August 2014, when sheriff’s detectives arrested Estrada and Victor Rodriguez Mendoza, 30, in Sanger. In January this year, prosecutors dismissed the murder charge against Mendoza. Sheriff’s officials never have said publicly how long Estrada and Mendoza had been in Sanger before they were arrested. Court records show a warrant was issued in May 2014 for their arrests.
After the verdict was announced, Oswaldo Vera, 75, and his family hugged sheriff’s detective Jeff Kertson and Hutchins, who took over the cold case this year.
Vera said Hutchins and Kertson “did a fantastic job,” but the real hero is Lisa Gamoian, a former homicide prosecutor who was elected to the Superior Court bench in November 2014.
After his son was killed, Vera said he often went to the Sheriff’s Office to see if his son’s killer would be arrested. But year after year, Vera said, sheriff’s officials brushed him off, saying, “It’s a cold case.”
Determined to get justice, Vera said he went to the District Attorney’s Office. There he also encountered reluctance from prosecutors working for former District Attorney Elizabeth Egan.
Until one day in 2014, when Gamoian overheard his plea for help. Vera said Gamoian, then an assistant district attorney, told him that she would review the case and call him in two weeks.
Vera said Gamoian kept her promise and called him. She later signed a warrant for Estrada’s arrest.
“That was the best day of my life,” Vera said Monday.