They harbored a cop killer in Bakersfield. Judge skeptical about releasing them

Three people from Kern County accused of harboring alleged cop killer Paulo Virgen Mendoza remain behind bars as a federal magistrate in Fresno said Tuesday she needs more information before ruling on whether to let them out of jail on bond.

Mendoza, an undocumented immigrant, is charged in Stanislaus County with murdering Newman police Cpl. Ronil Singh on Dec. 26, then fleeing until law enforcement tracked him down more than two days later at a home in Bakersfield.

At a hearing Tuesday in Fresno, magistrate judge Shiela K. Oberto expressed doubts about releasing Bernabe Castaneda; his wife, Maria Moreno; and their son-in-law, Erasmo Villegas Suarez, all of Bakersfield. Oberto noted that none of them called authorities when Mendoza told them he was on the run because he had killed a police officer.

In fact, one of the three allegedly got $500 from Western Union for him, she said.

“It doesn’t sound like very good judgment,” Oberto said.

But defense attorney Willard Bakeman of Anaheim said all three feared harm to their families from Mendoza if they called police.

“They were the moral equivalent of hostages,” Bakeman said. “It may not have been the best judgment.”

Assistant United States Attorney Karen Escobar said the three are flight risks who tried to help Mendoza flee to Mexico. At least two are undocumented immigrants, according to statements in court by lawyers arguing the merits of releasing them.

They lied to investigators, and knew Mendoza was in the United States illegally, Escobar said.

If released, Escobar said, Castaneda and Moreno would use their home in Bakersfield home as collateral, and Villegas would get bail money. Escobar added the United States might seize the home because it was used to shield an undocumented immigrant from detection, which is illegal.

Oberto said she needed more information about the possible forfeiture before ruling on release.

A follow-up hearing will scheduled for 1 p.m. Friday at U.S. District Court in Fresno.

The three are charged with conspiracy to conceal an undocumented immigrant, which carries a 20-year prison term. Bakeman said the law is for those who smuggle large numbers of people, and that the U.S Attorney’s Office is overcharging. The three are also charged with conspiracy to help someone flee to avoid prosecution, which carries a five-year prison term.

Four others are also charged with conspiracy to conceal an undocumented immigrant. They are identified as Ana Leydi Cervantes Sanchez, Conrado Virgen Mendoza, Erik Razo Quiroz and Adrian Virgen Mendoza. The latter three are set for a detention hearing Wednesday in Fresno.

Lewis Griswold: 559-441-6104, @fb_LewGriswold
Related stories from Fresno Bee