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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

3 Suspects in Shooting in Newbury Park Are Released

Crime: Four others are still held in incident that killed one teen and wounded another, but none is charged in slaying. Action renews community's fears.

May 11, 2000|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nearly two weeks after a deadly gang shooting struck fear into a working-class Newbury Park neighborhood, authorities have released three suspects and have yet to file charges in the brazen slaying of a 19-year-old man.

Seven suspects were arrested last week in connection with the April 28 shooting, which killed Edgar Cruz and wounded his 18-year-old friend, Andres Morales.

The suspects were set to be arraigned on criminal charges Wednesday. But three of the men were released before their court hearing, and so far none of the other four has been charged with Cruz's slaying.

Prosecutors did, however, file attempted-murder charges against a 21-year-old Van Nuys gang member for allegedly shooting Morales. Jesus Miranda is also charged with firing a gun at an occupied dwelling. His arraignment is set for May 17.

Ventura County Sheriff's Department officials would not comment on why the three suspects were released, nor would they say whether they would be rearrested.

"I could not say this at this time," said Senior Deputy Harold Hanley.

Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Ron Janes declined to discuss details of the case. "I think that if you talk to the Sheriff's Department," he said, "they will be able to tell you that the investigation is continuing."

The suspects' release renewed fears among residents near the crime scene--the 540-unit Conejo Creek condominium complex, which is home to more than 2,600 residents.

"Why? What happened?" asked Belsie Castellon as she rushed to a neighbor's house to pick up her 7-year-old son, Alex, for soccer practice. "They told us last week that they had arrested . . . people. It's no good--I don't like it."

Residents at the complex were shaken by the shooting, which occurred in one of the nation's safest cities as neighbors and their children were standing in the street, talking and playing, about 8:30 p.m.

According to authorities, two carloads of gang members cruised into the neighborhood and shot Cruz as he stood in the middle of the street. A feud between residents and a Salvadoran immigrant who had recently moved to the complex and had ties to the Van Nuys gang apparently initiated the attack.

Cruz and Morales were both shot in the abdomen. Witnesses told police that three or four shots were fired before the assailants fled and that at least two shots struck a house.

Cruz and his friend were unarmed, and police said they were not members of two established gangs in their community.

A second gang-related shooting occurred two days later at a nearby Mexican restaurant, leaving residents on edge despite an increased police presence. The release of the suspects this week only exacerbated those fears.

"It might happen again," said resident Rosita Guitu, a Filipino immigrant and a single mother. "Maybe they'll come here."

Catherine Seary, 67, said knowing that the suspects are free made her more determined to move from the troubled complex, which has been her home for more than 20 years.

"This used to be a good neighborhood," said Seary, talking while on her way to dinner with her two adult sons, Wes and Clay.

A San Fernando Valley resident, Wes Seary said the recent shootings at Conejo Creek have made him anxious to move his mother out of the neighborhood as soon as he can.

Hanley said it is understandable that residents of the complex would be concerned about their safety as a result of the suspects' release. But he added that police are doing everything they can to protect the community.

"That part of the city is receiving more service from the Police Department than any other part of the entire Conejo Valley," Hanley said. "That includes weekends and weekdays."

An additional patrol officer has been assigned to the neighborhood during the week, and two officers roam the complex on weekends. Two bicycle officers also watch the complex seven days a week.

Hanley said the extra patrols will remain in effect "until the city or our administration decides otherwise." A community meeting is set for Saturday to discuss the recent events and to address any concerns.

Meanwhile, some city leaders have suggested assigning a deputy to work from the complex. The proposal is expected to come before the Thousand Oaks City Council for consideration Tuesday.

Authorities released suspects Mabrisio Rodrigues, 26, Jose Francisco Torres, 29, and Francisco Rodriguez, 28, on Tuesday.

Three other suspects, Adan Gonzalez, 24, Roberto Carlos Guerra, 20, and Carlos Alberto Escobar, 24, remained jailed on immigration holds. Miranda, the suspect in the Morales shooting, is being held on $800,000 bail.

Authorities say all the suspects are part of a Salvadoran street gang, Mara Salvatrucha, which has gained a reputation for violence across Los Angeles.

For years, the gang has engaged in a bloody power struggle with rival gangs in the Pico-Union area of the city. That struggle has gradually spilled over into Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley.

Authorities believe the gang, whose roots lie in the 12-year civil war in El Salvador, is responsible for the bloodshed in Newbury Park. But they are not aware of any prior criminal activity by the gang in Ventura County.

"Not in the city of Thousand Oaks, and I'm not aware of any other part of the county," said Sgt. Mike De Los Santos, who monitors gang activity in the east county. "The two incidents we had a week and a half ago are the only incidents involving this gang that we know of."

Times staff writer Tina Dirmann contributed to this story. Times Community News reporters Katie Cooper, Holly Wolcott and Josh Karp also contributed.

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