The five young men accused of crimes related to the fatal gang-motivated shooting of 14-year-old Jesse Lopez on Hecker Pass in December will have hearings this spring to determine their roles in the violence, a judge decided Friday.
Watsonville-area residents David Moreno Sanchez, 19, Alejandro Alexis Rodriguez, 18, Juan Carlos Soto Gonzalez, 20, and Carlos Valencia, 22, will be have a preliminary hearing May 1. Sanchez and Rodriguez have pleaded not guilty to murder and attempted murder charges, as well as gun and gang crimes. Gonzalez and Valencia have pleaded not guilty to lesser charges of gang participation and being an accessory to a crime.
They will have a preliminary May 1 in front of Judge Ariadne Symons. All are being held in County Jail and were in court Friday in yellow and orange jail-issue clothes.
The fifth suspect, 18-year-old Uriel Ortiz, is free on bail and back in class at a school in Santa Cruz, his attorney, Charlie Stevens said. He appeared in court Friday in jeans, a black button-down shirt and white Reeboks.
Ortiz will have a preliminary hearing on March 5 due to scheduling difficulties with the attorneys involved. He has pleaded not guilty to fighting and battery; the second charge came from a jail house fight shortly after his arrest that corrections staff say Ortiz instigated.
A preliminary hearing is the time when the District Attorney's Office gives an overview of the case. Then a judge decides if there is enough evidence to move forward to trial.
The men accused of shooting Jesse are alleged Sureño gang members.
Jesse, a Watsonville High freshman, was at a quinceñeara party at the county fairgrounds on East Lake Avenue the night of Dec. 10 when he reportedly met some of the men suspected in his slaying. They offered to take he and a friend, another 14-year-old boy, out to socialize more, investigators have said. The two boys got into a car with their new acquaintances, drove up Highway 152 toward Hecker Pass.
But the car pulled off in a turnout about 4 miles from Watsonville and a second vehicle pulled up. Gunfire erupted and Jesse was mortally wounded. His friend was struck in the leg and ran into the woods to hide until help arrived. Jesse died later at Watsonville Community Hospital.
His death led to community outcry about violence and a demand for more options for youth in the community, such as jobs, athletics and arts. A vigil at the City Plaza drew more than 100 people, many of them Jesse's peers.
The five suspects were arrested later that night in Santa Cruz after police there responded to a report of gang members "mad-dogging" two tow truck drivers at the 7-Eleven on Laurel and Chestnut streets. Sheriff's detectives linked the group to the Hecker Pass shooting.
The D.A.'s Office announced in January that it would not seek the death penalty in the case. Sanchez and Rodriguez could sent to prison for life if convicted; the other three defendants would face lesser prison terms.
For all of Patch's coverage of Jesse Lopez's death, click here.