Three Watsonville gang members each face a possible life-without-parole prison sentence after a judge ruled Wednesday there is enough evidence to take the three to trial for the September 2009 gunshot slaying of a 21-year-old man.
Richard Eddie Campos was gunned down while sitting in his car, a red coupe parked in front of his father's Roache Road house.
The preliminary hearing—essentially, a cursory review of the case developed by the District Attorney's Office—for Jose Meza, Angel Antonio Moreno Torres and Joel Sanchez began March 21 in front of Judge Ariadne Symons.
The broke open the investigation, police said.
Multiple days of testimony saw those turncoats take the stand to testify. officers also spoke to the court about the investigation, including the use of surveillance cameras, wires and other recording devices. Watsonville police detective Morgan Chappell also testified as a gang expert, talking about the history of Poorside Watsonville, the Sureno gang that Meza, Torres and Sanchez allegedly belong to.
"There's sufficient evidence to hold each defendant," Symons said.
The slaying of Campos was a gang initiation for Meza, the DA's office alleged. According to testimony heard in court, Sanchez drove his mother's car while Meza and Sanchez, both armed, looked for a "northerner," a rival of their gang, to attack.
They spotted Campos and went after him, but pulled back and made a loop around the block—they were concerned about witnesses—before heading back to challenge Campos, according to court testimony.
Defense attorney Art Dudley, who represents Sanchez, argued that it was possible the trio didn't set out to kill Campos, which challenges the premeditation allegation Sanchez, Torres and Meza face. Dudley also pointed out that his client may not have been aware that the others were going to shoot someone, as he was just driving the car and didn't get out to take part in the confrontation.
"My client was not the actual killer ... We know my client didn't fire the gun," Dudley said.
Assistant District Attorney Rob Wade painted a different picture. He said Sanchez was "sending two gunmen with loaded firearms out to shoot."
"The person who was actually running the 'jale' at this point was Sanchez," Wade said, adding that Sanchez was "essentially the shot caller" for the gang.
Campos was shot several times and pronounced dead at the scene. Later, his relatives said the young man had been in trouble in the past, but was not a gang member.
The investigation languished for months. Police eventually cracked the case after gang members turned on one another.
"We had three turncoats from their gang testifying," Chappell said outside of court Wednesday. "... This is landmark."
Operation Groundhog, a year-long investigation into Poorside, a violent street gang, helped develop the sources within the gang that led to the Roache Road homicide arrests, according to Chappell and Assistant District Attorney Alex Byers.
"It's really the culmination of Groundhog," Byers said.
The gang members who turned on their organization also gave police insight into the gang that Chappell said has been invaluable going forward.
"It gave us a real behind-the-scenes look at the gang," Chappell said.
Sanchez, Torres and Meza return to court May 5 to set a trial date. They are being held in Santa Cruz County Jail.