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Judge Ponders Fate of Two Charged in Spearing Death : Courts: The reputed gang members are on trial for murder in attack on 17-year-old San Clemente youth in melee at a beach last fall.

August 24, 1994|ANNA CEKOLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — A judge on Tuesday began weighing the case against two teen-agers charged with murder in connection with the death of a San Clemente youth who was speared through the head with a paint roller during an altercation at a beach last fall.

Orange County Superior Court Judge Everett W. Dickey said he will issue a decision Thursday in the non-jury trial of Julio Perez Bonilla, 18, and Hector Penuelas, 17, both of San Clemente.

In closing arguments of the weeklong trial, Deputy Dist. Atty. Gary Paer told the judge Tuesday he believes the teens are guilty of second-degree murder, while defense attorneys Dennis McNerney and Duane Neary contended the killing was a tragic accident and urged a ruling of involuntary manslaughter.

Bonilla and Penuelas are among six young men and teens--all described by authorities as gang members or associates--charged with killing Steve Woods, a 17-year-old San Clemente High School student who died 25 days after suffering the bizarre injury on Oct. 15.

Woods was a passenger in a vehicle that was pelted by bottles, rocks, beer cans, blocks of wood and other items in a parking lot at Calafia Beach County Park in San Clemente. His friends testified they were trying to flee the beach and did nothing to provoke the confrontation. The defendants, however, testified that they acted in self defense.

During closing arguments, lawyers for the defendants characterized the fatal confrontation as a "series of coincidences" and "tragic circumstances," and one that had nothing to do with gang involvement.

Neary, who represents Bonilla, said his client and the others honestly believed that the vehicles speeding toward them posed a threat, however unreasonable a belief that might seem to some.

The defendants "anticipated trouble" from the other groups because of an altercation with one of Woods' friends moments earlier, the lawyers said.

In that altercation, Bonilla testified, he pushed Sterling Breckenridge, whom he said made an obscene finger gesture at him several days earlier. Bonilla said he grabbed a pipe, which he later threw, because he thought Breckenridge had rounded up friends on the other side of the parking lot to return for revenge.

Breckenridge, however, testified there were no hostilities between him and the other group. He testified he pulled up to the group and asked about a party in San Juan Capistrano when he mistook them as acquaintances. After being hit, Breckenridge testified he drove back to his buddies and warned them to get out of the park.

The prosecutor disputed the defendants claims to self defense, and said Woods and his friends were vulnerable "sitting ducks" as they tried to leave the parking lot through the one and only exit.

"This whole thing about self defense is self serving," Paer told the judge during his closing argument.

Paer contended that the case is gang-related, saying the trouble started when Breckenridge mentioned San Juan Capistrano, which set off the reputed gang members, whose rivals are from that area.

"Sterling did not know it, but mere mention of San Juan was enough of an insult," Paer said.

Although it is not clear who actually speared Woods with the paint roller, Paer said all the defendants are legally responsible for Woods' death because they participated in the fatal attack.

The defense attorneys said last week they chose to allow the judge to decide the innocence or guilt of the teens because they didn't believe a jury could fairly assess the case, which stirred angry protests and revealed racial divisions in San Clemente. The defendants are Latino, while the victim was white. Some Latinos said they case helped resurrect racial stereotypes and question whether police and community response would have been the same if the victim had been a Latino.

Bonilla and Penuelas were juveniles at the time of the attack but are being tried as adults because of the seriousness of the charges. In addition to murder, each is charged with conspiracy, assault and a felony count of throwing items at a moving vehicle. If convicted, the teen-agers also could face a sentencing enhancement for gang involvement.

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