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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Suspect in College Student's Slaying Pleads Not Guilty

Courts: On the day of the arraignment, family, friends and community members struggle to understand why Dino Zarate was killed.

September 07, 2000|TINA DIRMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Rita Zirate ran to the side of the boy who had been shot once in the head outside her Oxnard home, she didn't recognize him. Just another young man taken by gang violence, she assumed.

She would learn later that the boy was her nephew, 19-year-old Dino Zarate, whom she hadn't seen in several years. He was supposed to be out of Oxnard, away from the gang life and working his way through college in Northern California. But on Friday afternoon, he stopped by the old neighborhood for a visit.

And so, on Wednesday, Zirate stood on her porch looking at a small group of strangers who had gathered across the street from the shooting for a vigil.

"I know he wanted to be something," Zirate said, "to make something of his life. To end like this, it's sad."

Just hours before the vigil, 18-year-old Anthony Frank Vasquez pleaded not guilty to charges of murder and use of a firearm in Zarate's death and denied a special allegation that he is a member of a criminal street gang. He is being held in Ventura County Jail in lieu of $800,000 bail.

Zirate said her nephew had been living in a group home in Pasadena, trying to break the gang ties that had once bound him. He was on his way back to school at St. Mary's College in the Bay Area to begin his second year as a biology major, when he decided to see old friends.

Zarate picked up a group of friends in his blue Mustang and was driving near Clara and Courtland streets in south Oxnard when the shot rang out.

Neighbor Junior Vera said he was sitting on his porch when he heard the pop.

"I thought it was a firecracker," said Vera, who looked up to see a bunch of neighborhood kids running frantically. "One of them yelled, 'They have a gun.' "

Three men ran from the car, he said. Vera and Rita Zirate scrambled to the car, where they found the young man slumped behind the wheel. His friends had disappeared.

Police said they are looking for Zarate's friends, hoping they can provide clues to what prompted the shooting. They suspect the attack may have been gang-related. Police don't believe Zarate belonged to a gang, but he was friends with gang members. Vasquez, they say, belongs to a rival gang.

It's unclear if Zarate was the intended victim, Sgt. Jim Seitz said.

"It could have been someone else in the group," Seitz said. "That's why it's important for us to try to identify the people with Zarate."

During Wednesday's vigil, Ricardo Amador, principal of Haycox Elementary in Oxnard where Vasquez attended as a child, said he knows people in the community are afraid to come forward. But he said he hopes someone takes a stand.

The vigil was organized by Faith Connection, an anti-violence activist group based at North Oxnard United Methodist Church.

The Rev. Larry Tyler Wayman, who leads the group, said Wednesday's vigil was the 67th he has led in Ventura County in the last five years.

"We want to let the family of the suspect and the victim know that we are with them as they walk together to try to understand this senseless violence, " said Wayman, holding a small burning candle. "By our being here, we let them know they are not alone."

Zirate took little comfort in the flickering candlelight across the street.

"This is already the second nephew I've lost to gang violence," said Zirate, remembering the young man she said was beaten to death with a baseball bat over $100 tennis shoes six years ago. "It's all shocking."

Vasquez will return to court Sept. 20 for a preliminary hearing. Authorities will decide in coming weeks if he will face the death penalty if convicted.

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