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Orange County

Services Held for Slain El Modena High Wrestler

As mourners eulogize the 17-year-old, a fifth suspect in his killing appears in court.

November 19, 2003|Claire Luna and David Reyes | Times Staff Writers

As funeral services were held Tuesday for a popular high school wrestling star, a fifth suspect appeared in Orange County Superior Court and pleaded not guilty to being involved in the youth's gruesome slaying.

Diego Armando Gonzalez-Sanchez, 17, was shot twice in the head and set ablaze in what authorities said was a botched attempt to conceal his identity.

On Tuesday morning, more than 1,500 people -- many of them his classmates at El Modena High School in Orange -- attended a funeral Mass, listening as the Rev. Don Romito struggled "to make sense out of a senseless tragedy."

Gonzalez-Sanchez was last seen by his parents Nov. 9 when he told them he was stepping out to take an evening jog. His body was found the next day at a construction site.

The latest suspect to be arrested in the case -- Albert Thomas Medina III, 20 -- said little during his appearance in a Santa Ana courtroom besides entering a plea and reciting his name.

The stocky Santa Ana resident was arrested Friday on suspicion of helping Brandan Dante Perry, 20, after Perry allegedly shot Gonzalez-Sanchez twice in the head and partially burned the body.

Medina is being held on $1-million bail.

Authorities allege that Veronica Paz, who had dated both Gonzalez-Sanchez and Perry, assisted in the slaying. Both Perry and Paz are charged with murder and are being held without bail.

Medina's attorney, Frank Coughlin, said his client played football with Perry, 20, at Santiago High School but was not involved in the killing. Medina voluntarily met with Orange County sheriff's detectives three times last week and consented to a search of his home, Coughlin said.

"I think the police feel that [Medina] may have been evasive in his first interview," he said.

Rather than being involved in the slaying, Coughlin said, Medina was threatened by the killers. He did not elaborate on allegations of Medina's involvement in the slaying and it was not detailed by prosecutors at Tuesday's hearing.

While Medina was making his brief court appearance, the victim was being eulogized by friends and relatives at Holy Family Cathedral in Orange.

Dozens of El Modena High students, including Gonzalez-Sanchez's classmates and wrestling teammates, sat in pews and lined a rear church lobby. Many wore T-shirts bearing a picture of Gonzalez-Sanchez, who was co-captain of the wrestling team.

Gonzalez-Sanchez was buried at Fairhaven Memorial Park in Santa Ana.

The high school senior failed to return to his Orange home Nov. 9 and was reported missing Nov. 11.

By that time, however, his body had already been discovered by two students at a construction site in the hillside community of Orange Park Acres.

The students, who said they spotted the body about 8 a.m. Nov. 10, did not report their discovery to police until about 3 p.m., apparently out of fear they'd be caught skipping school.

Friends and law enforcement officials said Paz, 21, was dating Perry and Gonzalez-Sanchez. Prosecutors said Paz and Perry were lying in wait when they killed him. Prosecutors said Perry shot the victim twice in the head and, with Paz's assistance, tried to destroy evidence by partially burning the body. Perry and Paz were arrested last week.

Also arrested last week were Kimberly Rita Gomez, 20, and an unidentified 16-year-old boy who is related to Gomez. They were charged with being accessories to murder. Gomez was ordered jailed on $50,000 bail.

Times staff writer H.G. Reza contributed to this report.

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