A 22-year-old Santa Paula gang member will stand trial on charges of fatally shooting a former city resident at a Halloween party last year, authorities said Tuesday.
Hector Valdivia, who is being held in Ventura County Jail without bail, has been charged with murder with the special allegations of being a gang member and intentionally killing a person to benefit a street gang, prosecutors said.
The special allegations make Valdivia eligible for the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole, Ventura County Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Cheryl Temple said.
A decision on whether to seek the death penalty will be made by Dist. Atty. Greg Totten.
Temple said that during a preliminary hearing Monday detectives testified that Valdivia took a gun to a house party in the 300 block of Cameron Street in Santa Paula on Oct. 27. They said he shot Rusty Zuniga in the abdomen and arm before running away.
The shooting, which occurred in front of the home, was witnessed by several partygoers, who later identified Valdivia in a photo lineup. Under a state law that offers protection to certain witnesses before a trial, the detectives were allowed to testify on their behalf.
The witnesses were not named in court, Temple said.
"Many of the witnesses are afraid," she said, adding that partygoers included gang associates who may fear retaliation.
One witness named at the hearing in Ventura County Superior Court was Jessica Pena, Valdivia's girlfriend and the mother of their child, Temple said. Pena told detectives that Valdivia had been with her earlier the day of the party, left to visit a friend and returned to her home later that night. He was "crying, upset and refusing to talk," Temple recounted.
Valdivia was arrested in November on an unrelated probation violation and while in jail was charged with Zuniga's death.
His criminal history, records show, includes felony convictions for possession of a controlled substance and unlawful activity with a firearm and misdemeanor convictions for corporal injury on a spouse, battery, resisting arrest and disturbing the peace.
Defense attorney Robert Schwartz was in court Tuesday and not immediately available for comment. Temple said he argued at the hearing that statements made by witnesses were contradictory and that there was no physical evidence linking his client to the crime.
A gun was not recovered.
Zuniga, 24, was a Port Hueneme resident who had been in Santa Paula visiting his grandmother, who lived across the street from the shooting scene. He belonged to a rival gang when he lived in Santa Paula several years before, Temple said.
At the time of his death, Zuniga was working at an Oxnard window company and living with his wife and three children.
A trial date is to be set July 8.