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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Charges Dropped Against 2 Men in Teen's Fatal Beating

Court: Authorities lose a key witness in the case against the suspects, who have been jailed since the 1999 attack.

March 01, 2001|FRED ALVAREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Charges were dropped Wednesday against two men accused of participating in the 1999 beating death of teenager William Zara in front of his Ventura apartment.

Thomas Barrios, 22, and Mario Jaquez, 20, have been held in Ventura County Jail since November 1999 on charges of murder and conspiracy to commit assault.

Zara was beaten with fists, a bat and a shovel by a mob of people--many of them gang members or their associates--who mistakenly believed he had called police to complain about a loud party they were having across the street.

Nine people were charged in the attack. However, a witness whose testimony was crucial to attaining a conviction against Barrios and Jaquez is no longer available, prompting prosecutors on Wednesday to ask Judge Charles McGrath to dismiss the charges. Authorities refused to release further information about the witness.

The two men were expected to be released Wednesday evening from jail, where they had been held without bail.

"I'm confident that the charges we filed at the time are correct," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Maeve Fox. "Because of the way the case evolved, unfortunately I can't prove that they are guilty and . . . ethically that requires me to dismiss the case."

The dismissals came as a relief to family members of both men, who have maintained their innocence.

Barrios' aunt, Tina Marie Echevarria of Ventura, said her nephew is eager to get out of jail, adding that he is a good athlete who once played for the Ventura College baseball team and hopes to return to the squad.

"This is a time for our family to rejoice," Echevarria said. "He is exuberant. He's going to go back to Ventura College and go back to doing what he is supposed to do."

Jaquez's sister, 19-year-old Alicia Jaquez of Santa Paula, attended Wednesday morning's court proceeding and said her brother also is elated about his release.

"They had no evidence from the beginning that he was involved," she said. "I don't think it's fair at all. They took a year and a half away from him."

The beating was triggered by complaints of a loud party at the home of Rosana and Frank Olvera off Ventura Avenue in November 1999.

Believing that Zara, 18 at the time, had called police, the couple and as many as 20 others allegedly stormed his home, seeking to teach him a lesson. During the attack, police said, Zara grabbed a bat to defend himself.

But several attackers descended on Zara, beating him with a shovel, stabbing him and bludgeoning him with his own bat. Zara was rushed to Ventura County Medical Center, but was removed from life-support systems the next day.

In December 1999, the Ventura County Grand Jury indicted the Olveras, Terry Paul Schell, Benny Mendez Lopez Jr., Chris Gonzales, Barrios and Jaquez.

Gonzales has been granted immunity in exchange for his testimony against the others and has been placed in a witness-protection program. Charges against a 14-year-old also accused of taking part in the attack have been dropped.

Trial for the four remaining defendants is scheduled to get underway March 26, Fox said.

A fifth defendant, Ramiro Salgado, will be tried separately.

Fox said she informed Zara's family that she would ask a judge to drop charges against Barrios and Jaquez. But she said that she also told them that she has solid cases against the remaining defendants.

"These guys [Barrios and Jaquez] were more peripheral players from the beginning," Fox said.

Attorneys who represented the two men said they believed from the start that prosecutors didn't have evidence to convict their clients.

"This is the problem with indictments--they don't go through the test of being questioned," said Joseph O'Neill, who represented Jaquez. "It really shows how top-heavy this system is on the arrest and pretrial level. It's not an even playing field at all."

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