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Suspects Plead Not Guilty in Gang Homicide

A fifth man was charged with crimes related to the fatal shooting of Jesse Lopez, 14.

pleaded not guilty to charges in Santa Cruz County Superior Court on Tuesday morning.

Jesse Lopez, 14, was fatally shot Dec. 11 on Hecker Pass.

David Moreno Sanchez, 19, and Alejandro Alexis Rodriguez, 18, face charges of murder, attempted murder and gang participation while Juan Soto Gonzalez, 22, and Carlos Valencia, 20, are accused of being accessories to the crime and gang participation.

"It's a serious and tragic case, and my heart goes out to everyone involved in this case," said attorney Peter Leeming, who is Valencia's attorney.

New details emerged in court Tuesday, the most significant of which was a fifth suspect.

Uriel Ortiz, appeared in court with the four codefendants. Ortiz, 18, was arrested with the other accused men in Santa Cruz hours after the fatal shooting. According to detectives, the five were allegedly throwing gang signs and intimidating people in front of the 7-Eleven on Laurel and Chestnut streets.

Ortiz, a Watsonville resident who is finishing high school in Santa Cruz, is not charged with crimes related to the homicide, though Assistant District Attorney Steve Moore, who is prosecuting the case, said "we believe he's significantly involved as a peripheral player."

Ortiz pleaded not guilty to fighting in public and battery. That charged stemmed from a jailhouse fight, according to statements made in court.

The men allegedly lured Jesse and his friend, also 14, from a quinceañera at the county fairgrounds and drove them up Highway 152 toward Hecker Pass. A second car followed and both vehicles stopped in a dirt turnout about four miles outside of Watsonville.

Jesse and his friend were hit with gunfire. Jesse was struck by multiple bullets and fell in the gravel on the side of the road. His friend was hit in the leg and ran to hide in the bushes until emergency personnel arrived.

Jesse died later at Watsonville Community Hospital.

His death has catalyzed the community against gang violence. Hundreds of people—many of them Jesse's peers—turned out for .

Neither detectives nor the District Attorney's Office have outlined who was in which vehicle or who fired the deadly shots. However, according to statements made in court, apparently the night of the shooting, Ortiz was in a car with Sanchez. Valencia's car drove Rodriguez up the mountain.

"It was his car that drove away from the scene," Moore said.

Leeming, Valencia's attorney, appealed to Judge Ariadne Symons to release his client with an electronic monitoring device.

"He is not charged with shooting anybody," Leeming said.

That request was denied because of his limited ties to the community—Valencia immigrated to the U.S. about four years ago, has a new job, possibly has a girlfriend and is Gonzalez's cousin, according to statements made in court.

The three men facing lesser charges—Valencia, Ortiz and Gonzalez—will be back in court Thursday for a bail reduction hearing. All five men will be in court Jan. 6 to set a date for the preliminary hearing.

Patricia December 22, 2011 at 07:11 PM
Beverly, the court system is not hard enough on these gang issues. The police do their job and then the courts take over and too often do not demand a strong enough sentence for these gang members. Sending them to the prisons where their cohorts are only allows them to learn even more of the gang mentality. The gangs have dictated to us all the colors we are allowed to wear, areas where we can go into, etc. The gang members are protected in prison from their rivals, but what about the public? The police can do just so much. It's time to demand more of our court system.
Patricia December 22, 2011 at 07:32 PM
The gang members plead 'not guilty' because they did not shoot the victims though they may have been driving the shooter, or following in another car knowing beforehand what was going down, or even knowing after the happening and not reporting it to the authorities. All of those conditions makes for a guilty decision for each of them. The mentality of gang members is most likely nil. Gangs think in a 'unit mentality.' They don't think for themselves but follow orders of someone who in their esitmation has the 'authority' to issue those orders. This shooting or stabbing back and forth is a stupid game with them. It would suit them better or the public at least, if they were put in a field with one gang on one side and the other opposite. If they begin shooting, they are at least aiming at their own targets and not at the innocent public. Let them have their own war with each other. Leave the public out of it.
Mona Ramirez January 31, 2012 at 12:11 AM
COWARDS! Heartless, worthless COWARDS! Now how does this make sense? Adults shooting 14 year old unarmed children!? These aren't men that took Mrs. Lopez precious baby boy away from her, these are monsters. Only God knows the path they face. May you rest in peace Jesse.
Mona Ramirez January 31, 2012 at 12:15 AM
My heart goes out to you mija. I didn't know Jesse, but he and my son Anthony are friends. I pray for Jesse's friends and family every day. I am so sorry for your loss. Just remember, Jesse is an Angel in heaven, just as he was on earth. He will be missed, but never forgotten. God Bless you.
Priscilla March 23, 2012 at 03:41 AM
Ending this harmful gang drama and violence! Gang violence threatens the health and safety of children but if it decreases it can cause less harm and improve safety by taking action. Getting involved in gangs, fear and violence create a threatened environment. Once you're in gangs you can't control your life because someone else is. You are no longer an independent because you follow someone's footsteps. This can cause harm and can affect the way you live and whom you talk to. It can separate you from family or friends for just one reason. It can also affect people you love or people who should not feel uncomfortable walking near you. Taking action in what you do and thinking the consequences can help before you make a wrong choice. The community should gather up and talk to everybody about keeping as many people as you can away from gang violence. We should take a stand, and aware children of what can happen when they are walking alone or hanging around with not the best people. Nobody deserves an unsafe and harmful life because of people who cause it.

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