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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Witnesses Describe Attack on Zara

Courts: An investigator testifies that Ramiro Salgado hit the teen in the back with a shovel. Salgado, one of eight defendants, is ordered to stand trial.

November 09, 2000|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As William Zara struggled on his hands and knees, 20-year-old gang member Ramiro Salgado struck the teenager twice in the back with a shovel. Zara tried to crawl away but was kicked and punched by a pack of gang members.

His friends screamed. His roommate tried to wrest free of two assailants to help him. But another attacker advanced with a baseball bat--pummeling Zara in the head as he lay motionless on the courtyard outside his small west Ventura apartment.

That was the testimony presented Wednesday during the final day of Salgado's preliminary hearing on murder, conspiracy and street terrorism charges. He is one of eight gang members or associates charged in the Sept. 25, 1999, attack.

At the end of the hearing, Ventura County Superior Court Judge Edward Brodie found sufficient evidence to suggest Salgado participated in the slaying and ordered the defendant to stand trial. A dateis expected to be set later this month.

The ruling came after an explosive day of testimony. Ventura Police Det. Pat Stevens told the judge that during an Aug. 16 police interview Salgado confessed to kicking and hitting Zara, but denied striking the 18-year-old with a shovel.

But Dennis Fitzgerald, an investigator for the district attorney, testified that Salgado was identified by fellow gang member and co-defendant Chris Gonzales as wielding a shovel during the assault.

Gonzales, 24, agreed four months ago to help prosecutors and described during a six-hour interview the roles his alleged co-conspirators played in the attack, Fitzgerald said. Gonzales has since been placed in a witness protection program.

Fitzgerald said that on the night of the killing Gonzales and other gang members were partying at Rosana and Frank Olvera's house off Ventura Avenue when a police officer arrived in response to a noise complaint.

After two previous warnings, Rosana Olvera, Gonzales' aunt, faced a hefty fine if cited again by police for throwing a loud party, according to court testimony. On this occasion, she denied being the source of the noise and directed the officer to a nearby apartment complex on East Warner Street.

About 10 minutes later, after the officer left the neighborhood, Gonzales said he heard a ruckus coming from that complex. Fitzgerald said Gonzales told him that Rosana Olvera walked across the street and confronted a female resident, who denied calling the police.

"Rosana responded by grabbing the girl by the hair and punching her in the face," Fitzgerald said.

It was this altercation, Gonzales told investigators, that launched a violent melee in which 10 to 15 gang members spilled across the street from Olvera's house and began fighting with the residents at the complex.

At one point, Gonzales turned and saw a young white male--Zara--standing on his front steps swinging a baseball bat at the mob to protect himself. As chaos erupted in another area of the courtyard, Gonzales looked back and saw the teenager had been knocked to the ground.

A gang member Gonzales knew only as "Ramiro" was hitting him with a shovel. "It appeared to Gonzales that the victim was trying to crawl away from the attacker," Fitzgerald testified.

Gonzales told authorities that he tried to break up the fight, but that it continued as co-defendant Benny Lopez, 19, grabbed the bat Zara had been holding and began beating him in the head as he lay motionless on the ground. Zara died from his injuries at a local hospital.

Prosecutors last year obtained criminal indictments against Lopez, Frank and Rosana Olvera, and four other gang members. But Salgado was not charged until a few months ago--after Gonzales identified him as an attacker.

Gonzales still faces charges of murder, conspiracy and street terrorism. But those counts will likely be dropped or reduced if he testifies truthfully at the trials of his fellow gang members, authorities said.

During Wednesday's hearing, defense attorney Rick Loftus questioned the credibility of Gonzales' statements and suggested the gang member lied about his own role in the attack.

On cross-examination, Loftus asked Fitzgerald whether his client's name had ever been mentioned as a possible suspect during the 25 to 50 police interviews in the case. Fitzgerald said it had not been mentioned until Gonzales' statement to prosecutors.

Gonzales said during the interview that he tried to break up the fight. But a detective who interviewed Zara's roommate testified that the roommate never described seeing any gang member trying to stop the attack.

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