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Fights Back

Grand Jury Transcripts Shed Light on Slaying, Ventura Gang


VENTURA — Bill Zara was surrounded by the mob. He tried to defend himself with a bat, and got in one blow, injuring two attackers. One of the mob circled around and hit him in the back of the head with a shovel. They wrestled the bat from him and an attacker brought it down on Zara's head.

Zara, 18, a popular stagehand at the Ventura Theatre, fell to his knees. Sensing Zara's peril, a friend shouted, "Run to me, Bill!" and Zara struggled to his feet. The shovel across the back sent him sprawling again. The bat came down on his head.

This time he didn't get up.

"Oh my God, you've killed him!" someone screamed as the mob ran off.

"Yeah, right," came the laughing answer.

In the weeks following Zara's beating, police swept in and arrested eight members and associates of a gang that has terrorized portions of the Ventura Avenue area for more than 30 years. But investigators released few details about the Sept. 25 beating. Now, recently unveiled grand jury transcripts for the first time describe in graphic detail the killing of Zara and the violent tactics by which the 500 members of the gang have exercised their power for generations.

"This attack is what [the Ventura Avenue gang] is famous for," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Maeve Fox, arguing the case for jurors last winter. "They are a violent street gang that commits acts of violence to gain stature and respect. The whole reason Billy Zara is dead is because these defendants acted in a pack."

The following description of the events of Sept. 25 is based on witness accounts to the grand jury; it should be remembered that defense attorneys were not allowed to challenge them. Also, out of concern for the safety of people who testified before the grand jury, one of whom has since fled in fear of retaliation, the identities of witnesses are being withheld.

According to the grand jury transcripts, that September day started with a celebration. The gang held a barbecue in the afternoon at Camino Real Park in Ventura to commemorate the birthdays of two gang members. One was Ricardo Silva, nicknamed "Mousie," who was shot in the head and killed during a fight on Bell Way in May 1998.

As night fell, Rosana Olvera, 36, a stocky, dark-haired woman known for her quick temper, invited the group back to her house on East Warner Street to continue the party. Soon, loud music boomed from Olvera's garage, where revelers drank from a keg of beer. At 9:30 p.m., neighbors called the police.

The two officers who responded knew the address. They had been to the two-story, wood-frame townhome before on disturbing-the-peace calls. According to the transcripts, Olvera was a known gang associate, as was her husband. Her son was a gang member, and her daughter dated one. But when Officers Darrick Brunk and Matthew Liston arrived, they found a quiet house. Olvera, her husband Frank, 33, and a friend, Chris Gonzales, 22, were standing outside.

No, Rosana Olvera told the officers, she was not having a party. But she thought her neighbors were. She pointed across the street at Zara's apartment.

The officers crossed the street. "Are you here to bust the party?" asked a 16-year-old girl, who sat in the tiny courtyard surrounded by the U-shaped four-plex apartment building.

"What party?" Liston asked.

"The one across the street," she answered.

Without talking to Zara, Brunk and Liston returned to Rosana Olvera to warn her to keep the music down. "What are you talking about?" she angrily demanded. "I'm not having a party."

Liston told her he knew better. And in a break from police protocol, Liston told Rosana Olvera the source of his information.

After the officers left, Rosana Olvera stormed across the street and confronted one of Zara's neighbors. In slurred speech, she demanded to know if he was a "rata."

"You and your friends should learn to keep your mouth to yourself," she told him.

Chaos Erupts

The teenage girl, still sitting in the complex's courtyard, tried to intervene. "Hey, listen," she said. "There's no problem here. Everything's cool. You guys just go back home."

Rosana Olvera shoved her hard, the transcripts show. The teenager tumbled backward into several trash cans. Rosana Olvera crouched over her and punched the girl repeatedly in the face.

"No, don't!" the teenager screamed. "Don't!"

A neighbor ran out to find Rosana Olvera beating his friend, now curled into a fetal position. He jumped in to help her, and Rosana Olvera backed off, for a moment.

Then chaos erupted.

From across the street, 10 to 15 gang members swarmed the tiny courtyard. They jumped the neighbor who came to the girl's aid. Some held him down while others kicked and punched him. Rosana Olvera hit him with a barbecue grill.

The girlfriend of one of the other apartment residents took a punch in the face, then fell to the ground with a chipped tooth. Someone stood over her and kicked.

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