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Motive in Santa Paula Death Sought

Crime: A 50-year-old local resident is held in the fatal shooting of La Playita co-owner Isabel Guzman. It's the city's first killing in two years.

November 04, 1996|JASON TERADA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA PAULA — Police are still searching for a motive in the shooting death of the co-owner of a popular seafood restaurant in the heart of the city's downtown.

The slaying, which occurred at about dusk Saturday behind a row of small shops and eateries frequented by local residents, is the city's first homicide in two years. Police identified the suspect as Felix Magana, 50, of Santa Paula.

Magana had been drinking beer at La Playita restaurant, 930 E. Main St., shortly before 5:30 p.m. when he became embroiled in a "verbal tiff" with another patron, said Det. Gary Marshall of the Santa Paula Police Department.

Exiting through the restaurant's back door, which opens onto an alley and a well-worn parking lot, Magana came across the restaurant's co-owner, 30-year-old Isabel Guzman, who had been unloading supplies from a snow cone truck that she and her husband also operate, police said.

Apparently unprovoked, according to police, Magana allegedly fired four shots at Guzman with a .357 magnum and walked away. Three shots struck the woman, who died at Santa Paula Memorial Hospital a short time later.

"It doesn't appear to be a robbery, or gang- or drug-related," Marshall said. "It appears to be . . . a cold-blooded murder." He said Magana did not appear to be intoxicated but added that police are awaiting test results.

Armando Chavez, 27, was working nearby at the checkout counter of Primo's Market when the shooting occurred. The market, a bustling grocery store and butcher shop on Mill Street, caters to Santa Paula's Latino community and shares its rear parking lot with La Playita restaurant.

"We were very busy and heard big shots outside . . . four shots," Chavez said. He said the number of customers waiting in line kept him from looking out the store's rear entrance to see what was occurring in the parking lot.

Police said the victim's husband, Carlos Guzman, was working in a building near the restaurant when he heard the shots and ran outside. Seeing his wife lying wounded, Carlos Guzman followed the suspect for a short distance and then flagged down a police officer who had been called to the scene to investigate, authorities said.

After a brief chase on foot, officers caught Magana, who surrendered without a struggle. Police said he was carrying two weapons--the gun allegedly used in the shooting and a .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol.

Marshall said Magana admitted to the shooting while in police custody. He is being held at Ventura County Jail on suspicion of murder, with bail set at $250,000.

On Sunday afternoon there was little indication outside the restaurant that a shooting had occurred the previous evening. Residents pulling up in front of La Playita's blue-and-white facade were surprised to find its doors locked and windows dark.

In the alley where the shooting occurred, however, pink lines drawn by police ringed the Guzmans' white truck, still packed with snacks and candy. An arrow painted on the cracked and stained asphalt pointed to the spot where Isabel Guzman had fallen.

The previous day's shooting reverberated Sunday through Santa Paula, a pastoral community near the banks of the Santa Clara River.

"We're just totally shocked," said Santa Paula Mayor Pro-Tem Laura Flores Espinosa. "We were the only city in the county that had not had a murder in the last year. We're devastated."

Flores Espinosa said the Guzmans played an active role in the effort to maintain Santa Paula's aging but heavily used downtown area.

"Carlos [Guzman] had been very active in the Latino Town Hall and striving for business improvements in downtown," she said. "They were a very hard-working couple and contributed a lot to the downtown area."

Santa Paula Mayor John Melton said he was also stunned when he heard news of the shooting.

"This is an area where you wouldn't think of something like this happening," he said.

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