A man who was gunned down near an Atwater park last month had been working with state parole agents to lead them to his former cellmate, a 35-year-old parolee who authorities say opened fire before agents could reach the scene, according to court records and police reports obtained exclusively by the Merced Sun-Star.
Richard Valentine, 27, was shot in the arm, neck and face on Oct. 20 and was found lying on his back, his left hand still holding his cigarette, according to a report by Atwater police.
Just moments earlier, Valentine had been on the phone with Special Agent Nate Castro, telling him that he was about to meet up with David J. Lastra, an Atwater man wanted in connection with a Fresno kidnapping, according to a report by Atwater police Detective Matt Vierra. The two were meeting on Park Street near Memorial Baseball Park.
“The phone call ended as agents began to close on the area. Parole agents overheard shots fired upon turning onto Park St. When they arrived on Park St. they saw Richard Valentine on the ground with gunshot wounds to his person,” the Atwater police report said.
Valentine was pronounced dead a short time later at Merced Medical Center.
News that Valentine was killed while working as an informant for the parole agents raised questions from his family about why more wasn’t done to protect his safety.
Valentine’s father, Robert Valentine Sr., said he was “shocked” to hear his son had been working with parole agents.
“This is the first I’m hearing of this,” Robert Valentine told the Sun-Star on Monday. “If he was working with them, then they should’ve been protecting him. Where was his protection? Why weren’t they there to protect him?”
I knew I was going to kill him so it wasn’t going to be a big secret.
David Lastra, as quoted in an Atwater Police Department report
Parole officers with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation did not respond to phone calls and an email seeking comment about the case.
According to a report by Atwater police Officer David Walker, parole officers had advised Atwater police that Lastra was suspected of a kidnapping in Fresno and was believed to have assaulted the victim with a firearm. Few details regarding the kidnapping case were available Monday.
Valentine, who had served time in prison with Lastra in recent years, was working with parole agents to locate Lastra, according to family and police reports. Police reports indicate the two men had a history of animosity going back several years. Relatives of the two men said Valentine and Lastra fought at an Atwater park in 2008, reportedly over a family-related dispute.
According to police reports, Lastra believed he was meeting up with Valentine on Oct. 20 to collect money he was owed. Valentine’s family said the debt was about $60 and may have been for drugs.
Atwater police Lt. Samuel Joseph confirmed parole agents were “in the general area” when Valentine was gunned down. “Exactly where they were, how close, or any of those questions will have to be directed to parole,” Joseph said. He said Atwater officers were not in the area at the time Valentine was shot and killed.
Police reports indicate Valentine had tried to meet up with Lastra earlier that same day. Walker’s report said “their intent was to have the informant walk with the suspect to a nearby gas station, where the arrest would be initiated.” But that plan was abandoned when they realized Lastra wasn’t home.
Motive for slaying unclear
Police and prosecutors said the motive for the killing remains unclear. It is not known whether Lastra was aware Valentine was working with parole agents.
Lastra told investigators that “Richard ran his mouth, and talked about Lastra’s Nuestra Familia gang involvement among other things, ‘it was just Richard’s time to go,’ ” according to Vierra’s report.
The monetary debt seemed to mean little to Lastra, the report said.
“I asked if he (Valentine) paid him (Lastra) the money, would he let the issues slide. He stated that Richard was going to ‘go regardless,’ ” Vierra wrote. “‘I knew I was going to kill him so it wasn’t going to be a big secret.’ He expressed that he was ready to leave the street and go back to jail.”
Lastra was arrested the day after the shooting at a home in the 1200 block of Bellevue Road. He was charged two days later with murder.
Though he has pleaded not guilty, Lastra told police that he killed Valentine, using a green and black Springfield XD .40 caliber handgun that he picked up from members of a Norteno street gang in Fresno. Police found the gun in the bottom storage area of a stove at the home where he was arrested.
Andre Margain, Lastra’s attorney, said it was too early in the court process to comment on the case.
Lastra’s older brother, Daniel, told the Sun-Star his brother “is not the monster everybody is making him out to be.”
“He’s a good guy. He had a hard childhood,” he said. “I just want people to know that he’s not this monster. He’s a good person who looks out for his family.”