A 21-year-old El Rio gang member serving a jail term for attempted robbery was arrested Monday in connection with the shooting death of a 17-year-old Rio Mesa High School football player just before Christmas in 1999.
Marcus Daniel Morales was booked on suspicion of murder Monday morning at Ventura County Jail for the death of Ezequiel Francisco Miramontez, who was killed as he sat in his Toyota Celica in the El Rio neighborhood where he lived and worked.
Morales is currently serving a 16-month sentence for robbery and violating his probation, said Sheriff Bob Brooks during a news conference in the jail lobby.
Investigators allege that Morales set Miramontez's car on fire after shooting him in the head and body. Firefighters discovered Miramontez's bullet-riddled body in the driver's seat on Dec. 23, 1999, when they responded to the car fire in the 2600 block of Cortez Street.
Brooks declined to reveal a motive for the shooting, which stunned many in the small community because Miramontez was not affiliated with any gang and "was a good guy on a career path," said his uncle, Jay Flores.
Brooks said Morales, a known gang member, and Miramontez, a promising defensive tackle, knew each other because they both were raised in the same El Rio neighborhood. He said the shooting baffled investigators, who spent more than 2,000 hours on the case and conducted nearly 100 interviews.
The ensuing investigation, played out against a backdrop of frightened witnesses and few hard leads, frustrated the 20 sheriff's detectives who spent time on the case, Brooks said.
"They grew up in the same community but there was no provocation," Brooks said of the suspect and victim. "In a community with a big gang presence, investigators had to work around the barriers of witnesses not wanting to come forward."
Shortly after the shooting, detectives said they had developed a string of leads because the suspect had bragged about the killing to witnesses. Those leads soon dried up, investigators said.
Brooks said enough witnesses eventually came forward with information linking Morales to the crime and, most important, agreed to testify against him in court.
"There was sympathy on the part of the witnesses because they liked Frankie," Brooks said, using the name family and friends used for Miramontez, though his football teammates called him Zeke.
In the 2 1/2 years since the shooting, relatives of the slain teenager have become well-acquainted with homicide investigators.
Miramontez, a high school junior at the time of his death, worked as an apprentice in a family-owned auto body shop when he wasn't on the football field. Shortly after he was shot, 30 members of the Rio Mesa High School football team walked from classroom to classroom at the Central Avenue campus to collect more than $1,000 for the funeral.
In November 2000, Flores and Det. Tim Lorenzen held a news conference on the spot where Flores' nephew died. They appealed for help and offered a $25,000 reward to anyone with clues. The money was collected from the Sheriff's Department as well as from Flores and his family.
On Monday, Flores and Lorenzen were together again to discuss the arrest, along with Miramontez's mother, Maria, and his aunt, Rosie Ochoa.
"This could happen anywhere at any time," Flores said. "[Maria Miramontez] lost her only son. I see her crying all the time."
In her right hand, Maria Miramontez clutched a photo of her son wearing his football uniform. In her left was a picture of the grave site he shares with his grandmother Isabel, who died six months after the shooting.
Lorenzen, who worked the case from beginning and came to know the family well, said he has spoken every week with the boy's mother or another family member.
"It's a big relief because there was a lot of frustration putting everything together," Lorenzen said. "I hear from the family all the time. [Maria Miramontez] cries on the phone every week when I talk to her."