A 19-year-old Oxnard gang member will stand trial on murder charges after prosecutors presented evidence Monday they say shows he gunned down a member of a rival gang during a street confrontation almost three months ago.
The shooting was the first in a series of gang-related attacks that have erupted across the city in recent weeks.
The incident occurred Sept. 1 in a crime-plagued neighborhood in south Oxnard, prosecutors say, after defendant Anthony Frank Vasquez and two friends saw a carload of rival gang members cruising a street near Southwinds Park that Vasquez's gang claims as its territory.
According to witnesses, the rival La Colonia gang members were yelling gang slogans before some of them got out of the car and walked toward Vasquez. He pulled a gun, witnesses said, shouted his gang's name and fired one or two shots--hitting driver Dino Zarate in the head.
Zarate, a 19-year-old college sophomore unable to shake his gang ties, died behind the wheel of his blue Ford Mustang as his friends fled the scene.
Vasquez was later arrested and charged with murder, possession of a firearm in a public place, and an allegation that the shooting was gang-motivated.
During Monday's preliminary hearing in Ventura County Superior Court, prosecutors called two Oxnard police officers who had interviewed witnesses after the shooting.
One of the witnesses told police that he became aware of a fight brewing outside his house when he saw Vasquez, wearing a blue pro football jersey, facing off with a group of other teens.
"He heard people in the car yell 'Colonia!' and Mr. Vasquez yell 'Southside!' " testified Det. Robert Coughlin. "He saw Mr. Vasquez pull a weapon from his waistband area and point it toward the Mustang occupants and fire one shot."
Two other witnesses, both youths who were standing down the street at the time of the shooting, told officers they knew Vasquez by his gang moniker, "Payaso," which means "clown" in Spanish.
One of the youths told an officer that he saw Vasquez running with a dark handgun tucked in his waistband moments after the shooting. All three witnesses picked Vasquez out of a police lineup, according to court testimony.
Dennis McMaster, a gang expert with the Oxnard Police Department, testified that Vasquez is a known member of a South Oxnard gang and Zarate was a member of a rival Colonia gang.
Those two gangs are longtime rivals with scattered territories throughout the city, McMaster said. The Colonia gang has about 1,800 members, and the South Oxnard gang has about 300 members.
A 17-year-old affiliated with the South Oxnard gang reluctantly testified for the defense.
He testified that he--not Vasquez--shouted the gang slogan and said the rival Colonia gang members were carrying pipes and sticks when they got out of the car.
The defense also presented evidence that Vasquez's 14-year-old brother was chased and beaten by Colonia gang members near Southwinds Park a week before the shooting.
At the close of the hearing, Deputy Public Defender Randy Tucker argued that his client was provoked and fired in self-defense. Tucker asked the judge to reduce the murder charge to manslaughter.
But Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Simon argued that the defendant's motive was not to defend himself but to promote his gang.
"If you are in fear of your life, you don't yell a gang slogan," Simon said.
Retired Superior Court Judge Burt Henson, who presided over the hearing, found the prosecution evidence persuasive and held Vasquez to answer all the charges.
A trial date is expected to be set in January.