A Sanger man stands accused in Fresno County Superior Court of releasing pent-up jealousy in a murder eight years ago.
Prosecutor Brian Hutchins told a jury in opening statements Monday that Victor Estrada had a motive to kill 21-year-old David Vera: In high school, Estrada and Vera would fistfight, and Vera always won.
In his opening remarks, Fresno attorney Sal Sciandra, who is defending Estrada, said there is insufficient evidence to find Estrada guilty.
Hearing the defense lawyer give his view of the evidence made the victim’s father, Oswaldo Vera, curse in the courtroom.
The deadly shooting 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.
According to Hutchins, 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.
Hutchins said Vera went to the party with his fiancee and his friend, Omar Miranda.
At the party, Miranda was wounded during a confrontation with a rival Sureño gang member, Hutchins said, noting that Miranda wore a red cap with a C on it to show his allegiance to the Chankla Bulldogs street gang.
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.
It really hurts to know he killed my son. Because I trained him like he was my son.
Oswaldo Vera, speaking about murder defendant Victor Estrada, a one-time boxing protege
Hutchins told the jury a 16-year-old girl identified the then 21-year-old Estrada as the shooter. Sheriff’s detectives got a warrant and searched Estrada’s home and found his wet clothes and muddy shoes, Hutchins said. But Estrada was nowhere to be found.
Hutchins said Estrada’s cellphone showed he first went to Fresno after the shooting. Later that morning, Estrada’s cellphone showed he was in Selma, Delano and Chula Vista in Southern California. Estrada ultimately made it to Mexico, the prosecutor said.
The case went cold until August 2014, when sheriff’s detectives arrested Estrada, now 29, 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 in connection with the killing of Vera. Court records show a warrant was issued in May 2014 for their arrests.
In court Monday, Hutchins told the jury that the evidence shows Estrada shot Vera.
“He had motive,” the prosecutor said.
Before Vera was killed, he was at a house party when Estrada drove by, Hutchins said. According to Hutchins, Estrada confronted Vera with a gun and threatened him by saying, “Hey, ese.”
And after Vera was killed, Estrada and two gang friends beat and robbed one of Vera’s friends, Johnny Martinez, who is a Bulldog gang member. During the robbery, Hutchins said, Estrada pointed a gun at Martinez and told him, “I’m going to do to you like I did (Vera).”
Court records say Estrada has a criminal record. He pleaded no contest to assault with a deadly weapon and street terrorism in 2008 and was sentenced to three years of probation and 270 days in jail. A judge ordered him to stay away from gangs.
David Vera had minor brushes with the law; as a teenager, he was arrested for graffiti, being a minor with a spray paint can and riding a skateboard in a business area. Once he became an adult, he settled down with his girlfriend and began working, his father said.
He left town to save his own life.
Defense lawyer Sal Sciandra, explaining why his client, Victor Estrada, went to Mexico
Sciandra, Estrada’s attorney, said the 16-year-old girl never got a good look at the shooter and gave sheriff’s officials conflicting accounts. The wet clothing and muddy shoes sheriff’s detectives seized as evidence could have belonged to one of Estrada’s relatives, Sciandra said.
Estrada went to Mexico, Sciandra said, because he learned that he was being blamed for killing Vera. Sciandra contended that Vera was a Bulldog gang member and his gang friends made Estrada “a marked man.”
“He left town to save his own life,” Sciandra told the jury.
In addition, the cellphone evidence is unreliable, Sciandra said, saying it is based on assumptions.
“There is not only reasonable doubt, there is extraordinary doubt,” Sciandra said.
Outside court, Oswaldo Vera and his son’s mother, Maria Montes, and other relatives and friends said it broke their hearts to lose David Vera. They described him as a person who loved music, skateboarding and art.
“He had many friends,” said Hortencia Vera, the victim’s older sister. “He was just beginning his life.”
What made the killing terribly sad, Oswaldo Vera said, was that he once helped Estrada when he was young.
From 1992 to 2002, Vera ran the Sanger Boxing Club, donating his time and money to help the city’s poor kids stay out of trouble and find self-esteem through discipline and respect for others.
As a boy, David Vera learned the sweet science of boxing from his father, a former boxer who made a living as a musician.
Vera said he also taught Estrada how to box in his pre-teen years and bought him ice cream on hot summer days.
“It really hurts to know he killed my son,” Oswaldo Vera said. “Because I trained him like he was my son.”