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Court Hears Tape in Slaying

Law: Gang member is accused of playing role in fatal beating of teen in 1999. Defense contends Ventura police coerced a confession.

April 11, 2002|HOLLY J. WOLCOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Ventura gang member on trial in the 1999 bludgeoning death of a local teen told police detectives before his arrest that the victim was a former schoolmate with whom he had partied and discussed religion.

Details of the friendship between Ramiro Salgado and victim William Zara, an 18-year-old Ventura Theatre stagehand, were revealed Wednesday during the first half of a two-hour, taped confession that was played for the jury. It was the first day of Salgado's trial on charges of taking part in a gang-related murder.

"We used to talk about God in school," Salgado tells detectives on the tape. "I used to like that guy."

Salgado, 22, is charged with aiding as many as 20 fellow gang members and associates in the Sept. 25, 1999, killing of Zara, who was beaten in the head with a bat and shovel, stabbed and kicked.

The angry mob, whose members had been drinking beer and listening to loud music at a house across the street from Zara's Warner Street apartment, attacked the teen because they mistakenly thought he had reported their party to police.

Four people have so far been convicted of murder charges in the case, including 18-year-old gang member Benny Lopez, who inflicted the fatal blows. All are serving prison terms of 15 to 32 years.

Salgado, a former fast-food worker who aspired to join the Army, has denied kicking and punching Zara or knowing it was Zara who was being attacked. He claims his confession was coerced.

Prosecutors said, though, that he was part of the agitated mob.

"This was one of the most chaotic, frightening, brutal attacks you can imagine," Deputy Dist. Atty. Maeve Fox said during a two-hour opening statement, which featured a computer presentation with snapshots of the defendant's fellow gang members.

"And Mr. Salgado was right there, one of those people in the crowd," she said.

The taped confession was obtained nearly a year after the slaying when a gang member said Salgado was involved. On the tape, Salgado tells Ventura Police Det. Pat Stevens that he had been drinking tequila at the party when he saw 20 or 30 people walk toward Zara's home.

Salgado says he warned his friends not to go over because he knew something bad could happen. At the start of the interview, he denies being in the fray but gradually admits to seeing someone being beaten badly. He says the last time he saw Zara was when the teen was loaded into an ambulance that night.

"I have dreams about him ... because I used to go to school with him," Salgado says on the tape. "That was a mistake ... what they did. That was bad."

Today, as promised by Fox during her opening remarks, jurors will hear the remainder of the tape in which Salgado confesses to participating in the attack.

But the admissions, considered by authorities to be the key pieces of evidence, are a weak link in the case, defense attorney Richard Loftus said. Loftus told jurors there was no doubt the slaying was shocking, vile and disgusting, but that his client is the victim of questionable police tactics in which coercion was used to get him to admit some involvement in the beating.

Salgado, Loftus said, was the target of similar tactics in 1998 when he was arrested and jailed on suspicion of stealing beer from a local store. Detectives finessed a confession out of him, Loftus said, but Salgado was released after a store surveillance camera proved his innocence.

Loftus also attacked the state's key witness, a gang member who participated in the attack but who was granted immunity in exchange for his testimony against Salgado.

"There is no credible evidence ... to convict Mr. Salgado," Loftus said.

The trial resumes today. It is expected to last two weeks.

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