A Sanger gang member was sentenced Monday to life in prison without parole for what the prosecution called the senseless killing of 21-year-old David Vera during a party in a field more than eight years ago.
Victor Estrada, 30, showed no reaction when his punishment was announced in Fresno County Superior Court.
Vera’s family, who packed the courtroom, let out a “Yes” and wiped away tears of joy.
“It’s the happiest day of my life,” said Osvaldo Vera, the victim’s father, in thanking prosecutor Brian Hutchins and sheriff’s detective Jeff Kertson.
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.
During the trial, Hutchins told the jury that Vera was not a member of a street gang, but he had friends who were in the Bulldogs gang. Hutchins said Estrada was associated with Sureño gang members, who are rivals of the Bulldogs.
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 an unarmed Vera was directing traffic so his wounded friend could be taken to a hospital when he was shot five times by Estrada who was 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. Mendoza was never tried on a murder charge because prosecutors dismissed him from the case a year ago.
In December last year, a jury deliberated less than five hours before finding Estrada guilty of first-degree murder. Because the jury found that the killing was during a drive-by shooting, Estrada faced a mandatory sentence of life behind bars.
On Monday, Osvaldo Vera told Judge Edward Sarkisian Jr. that his son was a musician, artist, boxer and accomplished skateboarder. “He was a leader,” he said.
Vera called Estrada “a punk who has been terrorizing Sanger for years.” He then praised all the witnesses “who took a stand against gang violence” and testified against Estrada. “They called his (Estrada’s) bluff,” he said.
The victim’s older sister, Hortencia Vera, told the judge that her brother’s death caused her anger and gave her thoughts of revenge. “I wanted to kill him,” she told Sarkisian. “But we don’t have a murderous gene in our bodies. We believe in justice.”
Fresno defense attorney Sal Sciandra informed Sarkisian that Estrada plans to appeal.
In announcing the punishment, Sarkisian noted for the record that Estrada turned down a plea offer of second-degree murder, which would have resulted in 15 years to life in prison.
Sarkisian also said the jury made the right decision because Estrada had a motive to kill Vera; a witness had identified him as the shooter; and detectives found his wet clothing and shoes before his flight to Mexico. Estrada also made incriminating statements after Vera was killed.
According to Sarkisian, Estrada and two gang friends beat and robbed one of Vera’s friends. During the robbery, Estrada pointed a gun at the victim and told him, “I’m going to do to you like I did (Vera).”
The evidence, Sarkisian said, “tightly and firmly supports the jury’s verdict.”
After the hearing, Oswaldo Vera said Hutchins and Kerston did a great job, but said the real hero is Lisa Gamoian, a former homicide prosecutor who was elected to the Superior Court bench in November 2014.
Before she was elected judge, Gamoian, then an assistant district attorney, heard Oswaldo Vera’s plea for help and told him that she would review the evidence and call him in two weeks. Vera said Gamoian kept her promise and called him. She later signed a warrant for Estrada’s arrest.
Outside court, Oswaldo Vera thanked those who showed up to support his son.
One of them was Joan Pope, who was David Vera’s fifth-grade teacher at John Wash Elementary School in Sanger. “He was a sweetheart,” Pope said of the victim as a student.
Over the years, Pope said she kept in touch with David Vera. One time in 2002, she needed help moving furniture and Vera showed up to lend a hand.
“We’re all going to miss him,” Pope said.