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Ventura County

2 Witnesses Refuse to Testify in Slaying

Their reluctance is a hurdle for prosecutors during a preliminary hearing involving the 1999 death of a Rio High football player.

October 23, 2002|Jessica Blanchard | Special to The Times

Two key prosecution witnesses refused to testify Tuesday during the preliminary hearing of an El Rio man charged with killing a high school football player in 1999.

Prosecutors struggled to build their case against Marcus Moralez, 21, who is accused of repeatedly shooting Frank Miramontez, 17, as the Rio High School student sat in his car near his home.

The two potential witnesses -- Louie Gutierrez and Jorge Navarro -- are thought to have witnessed the crime, prosecutors said. But Gutierrez cited his constitutional right against self-incrimination and refused to testify, prompting Superior Court Judge Roland Purnell to find him in contempt and order his arrest.

Navarro said he would testify, but only with his lawyer present. The lawyer is on vacation.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Susan Aramesh questioned several reluctant witnesses, including Jesus Mendoza, 18, who told detectives four months ago that Moralez confided that he shot Miramontez in an attempt to steal a car stereo.

But Tuesday, Mendoza said he had lied in an attempt to get out of jail, where he was being held for car theft.

"I was making things up just to get out," he said. "All I was thinking about was me, me, me, and getting out. I thought they were going to help me get out, so I made a mistake and lied to the police."

Aramesh suggested Mendoza fears retribution if he cooperates.

The hearing did provide some new details.

Miramontez was probably shot six times, according to testimony by Janice Frank, county assistant chief medical examiner. Frank also testified the shots were fired at fairly close range and probably came from the right rear passenger seat of Miramontez's car.

April Mabry, a former girlfriend of Moralez, testified that she saw Moralez riding in Miramontez's car before the teenager was shot.

She said she was friends with both men and that they had followed her to a bank parking lot in Oxnard, where she spoke to them. She said Miramontez asked her repeatedly if he could accompany her on a shopping trip that evening, but she turned him down.

Prosecutors say it was a desperate attempt by Miramontez to avoid being alone with his passengers.

Mabry said five people were in Miramontez's car and that Moralez was in the front passenger seat, not in back, from where the shots supposedly came.

Aramesh suggested that Mabry changed details of her statement to avoid incriminating a longtime friend.

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