Trial began Tuesday for the first of several men charged in the killing an alleged Placentia drug dealer on the orders of one or more suspected gang leaders who were behind bars at the time of the slaying.
Prosecutors allege that 24-year-old Augustine Velazquez was one of three men involved in a fatal, Jan. 19, 2017 confrontation with Robert Rios in the front yard of his Placentia home.
During opening statements on Tuesday afternoon in a Santa Ana courtroom, Deputy District Attorney David Porter alleged that Velazquez and the two other men – Ysrael Jacob Cordova and Ricardo Valenzuela – were confronting Rios over a drug money debt he owed to Greg Munoz, an alleged gang leader who was incarcerated at the time in a state prison.
Velazquez is facing murder and conspiracy charges, among other counts. Cordova, Valenzuela and Munoz are all co-defendants, but are being tried separately from Velazquez.
Also awaiting trial in the case is Johnny Martinez, the suspected leader of the Orange County Mexican Mafia who prosecutors previously alleged organized the murder of Rios while behind bars at Salinas Valley State Prison. Neither Martinez nor the Mexican Mafia were mentioned during opening statements of Velazquez’s trial.
The prosecutor described Rios as a “small time” drug dealer who refused to pay money Munoz believed Rios owed him for dealing drugs in Placentia. Velazquez, Cordova and Valenzuela – all of whom were allegedly armed with semi-automatic weapons – were driven to Rios’ home by a fourth man, Charles Frederick Coghill, the prosecutor said.
Rios was in his bedroom with his pregnant girlfriend – who also kept the books for his drug sales – when he spotted the three men approaching his home on his security cameras, the prosecutor said. Porter alleged that the men planned to rob and kidnap Rios.
Porter said Rios exited the home, hoping to negotiate with the men “peacefully,” but was knocked to the ground. As Cordova and Valenzuela entered the home, Rios tackled Velasquez, who had been tasked with guarding him, the prosecutor said.
Cordova ran back outside, the prosecutor said, firing at Rios, who was struck twice by the gunfire and beaten.
“He was just a bloody mess,” Porter said.
Velasquez was also struck by the gunfire, suffering gunshot wounds to a leg. A friend later dropped him off at a hospital in Oceanside.
Velazquez’s attorney, Robison Harley, denied that Velazquez was aware of a plan to kill Rios. Velazquez, who was 20 at the time, was much younger than the others, and had been hanging out with them that day as they helped him find parts to repair his damaged car, Harley said.
The defense attorney disputed that Rios was a “small time” dealer, alleging he moved large amounts of methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin. Rios had drugs in his system, including methamphetamine, that led to a violent outburst during the confrontation, Harley said.
Harley noted that the other men didn’t even bother to take Velazquez to a hospital themselves, instead opting to essentially leave him on a curb.
“That is how worthless his participation was,” the defense attorney said.
Coghill, the alleged driver, was described by the defense attorney as Munoz’s “right-hand-man.” Coghill is expected to testify as a prosecution witness during the trial.
When the charges were first announced in 2018, prosecutors described the killing as part of an uptick of violence related to Martinez taking over control of the prison-based Mexican Mafia, which exerts widespread control over gang activity across Southern California by “taxing” local drug dealers and issuing edicts to local street crews.
Source: Orange County Register