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Suspect in '98 Slaying Caught in Mexico

June 23, 2006|Ashley Surdin | Times Staff Writer

Mexican officials, using a helicopter to reach a remote mountain hide-out in central Mexico, on Thursday arrested a Los Angeles gang member suspected of killing a 12-year-old boy seven years ago, authorities said.

Alvaro Jara-Luna, 26, was captured by federal Mexican police who stormed a ranch in the state of Nayarit at 2:30 a.m., said John Clark, chief inspector with the U.S. Marshals Service.

"They were able to get there in the middle of the night and take him by complete surprise," Clark said at a news conference at the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.

Relying on tips, a paper trail and what one official called old-fashioned "shoe-leather" police work, Los Angeles and Mexican police tracked the fugitive to the ranch.

Authorities said that Jara-Luna fled the country after Steven Morales was shot Aug. 29, 1998, in front of a Highland Park apartment building while playing with friends. Morales was struck once in the forehead.

Jara-Luna is now in prison in Mexico City. He could be returned to California within weeks if Mexican authorities agree to deport him or possibly years if extradition is necessary, Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said. Awaiting Jara-Luna, a U.S. citizen, are charges on one count of murder and three counts of attempted murder.

Jack Morales, 41, who wore a baseball cap and a T-shirt with his slain son's picture on it, wavered between gratitude and anger during the news conference.

"Stephen was only 12 years old when he died, and he did not deserve this," said Morales, crying and shaking his fist at a photograph of Jara-Luna.

Morales said Jara-Luna's capture brought him relief because it was his wife's dying wish that their son's killer be brought to justice.

Yolanda Morales was 40 when she died of cancer two years after her son's death.

But with relief comes fear as well. "I feel scared because I'm going to have to see him in court, and my kids are scared of him. They hate him," said Jack Morales, as Stephen's two brothers and sister sat quietly in the back of the room.

Jan Maurizi, a unit chief with the district attorney's office, said the district attorney would seek a life sentence without the possibility of parole if Jara-Luna is convicted.

Last year, the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that people charged with crimes carrying life sentences could be extradited to the U.S. for trial. Mexico has long resisted extraditing people who could face the death penalty.

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