In a Fresno murder trial that began Wednesday, both sides agree that a young man with gang tattoos on his face and neck killed an older man in a gruesome stabbing that was recorded when the accused killer inadvertently made a 911 butt dial to Fresno police.
What’s in dispute in Fresno County Superior Court is whether Christian Joel Medina, 20, acted in self-defense when he killed 27-year-old Leonel Ortega on Feb. 19, 2013.
The killing happened at the Casa Blanca Apartments on Marks Avenue near McKinley Avenue, west of Highway 99. The trial in Judge Arlan Harrell’s courtroom will give a glimpse into the violent gang feud between the Norteños and the Bulldogs.
The trial in Judge Arlan Harrell’s courtroom will give a glimpse into the violent gang feud between the Norteños and the Bulldogs.
In opening statements of the trial, prosecutor William Terrence contended Medina committed first-degree murder because Ortega was unarmed when he was stabbed five times, including three times in the back. Fresno defense attorney Linden Lindahl, however, told the jury that Ortega initiated the fight when he asked Medina: “What’s up, dog?” The phase is a challenge to fight. Lindahl contends Ortega attacked Medina and Medina had to defend himself against a much older and bigger man.
Medina was 17 years old when he was arrested after the killing. He is being tried as an adult because of the seriousness of the crime. If convicted of first-degree murder, Medina faces a minimum of 26 years to life in prison.
Terrence said police learned of the killing when Medina inadvertently made a 911 call from his cell phone while he was stabbing Ortega. Jurors will hear the 911 call to get insight into the deadly confrontation.
In presenting his case, Terrence said Ortega had methamphetamine and marijuana in his body, but not enough to cause his own death. He said Medina is a West Fresno Norteño, a subset of the larger Norteño criminal street gang, with many gang tattoos to show his allegiance.
According to Terrence, Medina killed Ortega to promote the Norteño criminal street gang. Lindahl, however, told the jury that Medina left the West Fresno Norteño gang after his best friend, Joe Anthony Rodriguez, was killed by gang violence in January 2013.
Both sides agree that Medina was a foster teen who was living in a group home on Marty Avenue near Clinton Avenue, west of Highway 99, when the killing happened.
During the evening hours of Feb. 19, 2013, Medina and his friend Mark Miranda left the group home to smoke marijuana, drink alcohol and hang out at the Casa Blanca Apartments, where Medina knew one of the female residents, Terrence said. Ortega, who was known as “Lil Leo,” also lived at the apartment complex with his longtime girlfriend, he said.
Shortly before 9 p.m., Ortega left the apartment and was headed to a store when he crossed paths with Medina. The pair didn’t know each other.
What’s up, dog?
Leonel Ortega before he was killed
“What’s up, dog? Do you bang?” Ortega said.
Terrence said Ortega and Medina began to argue. Medina’s friend Danielle Rodriguez, who lives at the apartments, heard the commotion and left her apartment with hopes of breaking up the fight, Terrence said. By then, the altercation was headed to the parking lot of the complex with “Ortega backing up and Medina advancing toward him,” Terrence told the jury.
Rodriguez got between the two combatants, but couldn’t break up the altercation. According to Terrence, when Medina reached into his pocket and pulled out a 10-inch hunting knife, Rodriguez told him: “Stop. Don’t do this.”
Instead of listening to Rodriguez, Terrence said, Medina put his hand around Rodriguez’s throat, pushed her away and said: “Get out of my way. You’re keeping me from getting to him.”
Medina caught up to Ortega and stabbed him, causing him to fall to the ground in the parking lot near Marks Avenue, Terrence said. Medina and Miranda then ran back to the group home.
Medina’s inadvertent 911 call led to police to the crime scene, Terrence said. There, Rodriguez told police that Medina was in an altercation and armed with a knife, Terrence told the jury.
Police later searched Medina’s room at the group home and found a hunting knife in his closet, Terrence said. Read his Miranda rights against self-incrimination, Medina told police he stabbed Ortega in self-defense, the prosecutor said. According to Terrence, Medina also told police that he had never met Ortega before, heard Ortega say “What’s up, dog?” before they started fighting, and admitted that Ortega was unarmed.
“He committed first-degree murder,” Terrence told the jury, “because he thought about it and intentionally killed Leo Ortega.”