A Ventura gang member returned to court Tuesday to begin his second trial on murder charges for allegedly kicking and punching a wounded 18-year-old man as he tried to crawl away from a deadly gang attack.
Ramiro Salgado, 22, sat expressionless as a Ventura County prosecutor described him as a participant in the September 1999 beating of William Zara, a Ventura Theater stagehand who was attacked outside his apartment by gang members who suspected him and his friends of reporting their loud party to police.
"The officers, within minutes of leaving, come back to find Mr. Zara lying in a puddle of blood," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Maeve Fox in her opening statement.
In the six minutes after the patrol officers left the west Ventura neighborhood where the party was held, Fox said, about a dozen gang members swarmed outside Zara's apartment and fatally beat him with a bat, a shovel, their fists and feet.
By his own admission, Salgado participated in the killing by kicking and striking Zara as he crawled on hands and knees to escape the attack, the prosecutor said.
But defense lawyer Richard Loftus told jurors in his opening statement that the only evidence tying his client to the crime is a false confession Salgado gave police during an exhaustive interrogation.
There is no scientific evidence, Loftus argued, and no witnesses who identified Salgado as one of the attackers.
"None of them will tell you Mr. Salgado was there," he said.
Salgado is the fifth and final defendant to stand trial in Zara's killing, a death that stunned local residents for its brazenness and resulted in the convictions of four other participants.
Benny Lopez, Frank Olvera, Terry Schell and Rosana Olvera were convicted of murder last year and are serving life sentences. All were arrested in the weeks after the Sept. 25, 1999, attack.
Salgado, a west Ventura gang member since 1996, was arrested in August 2000 after being identified by a fellow gang member and admitting to police that he participated in the assault.
Three months ago, Salgado's first murder trial in Ventura County Superior Court ended in a mistrial after jurors deadlocked amid a disagreement over the alleged confession.
Jurors told lawyers afterward that they questioned whether Salgado participated in the attack or simply told authorities what he thought they wanted to hear.
Three weeks after the mistrial, Ventura County prosecutors announced they would retry the case.
Salgado's tape-recorded statements in the police interview room are again likely to be the centerpiece of his retrial, which is expected to last about a month.
Ventura Police Det. Richard Payne, a gang expert, was the first witness to testify Tuesday. Payne tracks the activities of the west Ventura gang involved in the Zara beating.
The gang, which currently boasts about 75 active members although police have documented more than 350 members over the years, is the largest and oldest in Ventura, Payne said. Its members have been convicted of crimes ranging from auto theft to assault with deadly weapons.
Payne told jurors the west Ventura gang members seek respect within the community by carrying out crimes of violence--regardless of whether the victim is a rival or a common citizen.
Payne testified that Salgado was a known gang member, whose association has been documented by police since 1996.
He said records show Salgado has been stopped by police about two dozen times since then with other gang members.
One month before the slaying, Payne testified, Salgado was served with a court injunction barring him from attending the Ventura County Fair at the county fairgrounds, which his gang considers part of its turf.
Testimony in the case is scheduled to resume today.