A former Pizza Hut delivery driver accused of killing a gay co-worker because of the victim’s sexual orientation will stand trial for murder, a judge ruled Friday, after questions regarding the defendant’s mental competency led to three months of suspended criminal proceedings.
Miguel Angel Bautista Ramirez, 27, of Thermal faces a charge of first-degree murder in the July 13, 2014, shotgun death of 20-year-old Juan Ceballos in Mecca.
Ramirez faces life without the possibility of parole due to a special circumstance allegation of committing a murder that is a hate crime.
Another special circumstance allegation of committing an intentional murder made him eligible for the death penalty, but prosecutors opted not to pursue capital punishment last August.
Doubt regarding Ramirez’s mental competency led Riverside County Superior Court Judge Dean Benjamini to suspend criminal proceedings in November 2016 and request that a doctor assess Ramirez and prepare a report for the court.
Benjamini concluded Friday that subsequent reports have certified that Ramirez can be held on the charges and ordered that criminal proceedings be resumed.
Ramirez is due back in court March 13 for a trial-readiness conference.
During the defendant’s 2015 preliminary hearing, a Pizza Hut manager testified that Ramirez seemed obsessed with the question of whether Ceballos was gay.
The witness said the defendant often used slurs to refer to the victim and that the two delivery drivers were once caught in a dishwashing area of the restaurant squaring off, Ramirez brandishing a small pocket knife and Ceballos an electronic stun gun.
Ceballos was described as a private person who rarely discussed his sexual orientation.
“Anyone who talked to Juan knew that he was (gay),” Liana Pena, who supervised the two men, testified.
On the night of the shooting, Ceballos left work and stopped at a gas station sometime after 11:30 p.m., Riverside County sheriff’s investigator Nelson Gomez testified.
Surveillance video shows a gold-colored pickup truck appearing to follow Ceballos’ silver sedan into the gas station property, then its headlights are switched off. When Ceballos leaves the business, the gold pickup appears to follow, Gomez said.
At the time of the killing, Ramirez drove a gold Toyota Tacoma pickup truck, according to authorities.
As Ceballos arrived at his home in the 65-000 block of Dale Kiler Road, he sent a text message to his 17-year-old brother that read “come,” Gomez testified.
Moments later, the brother went to the window and saw his brother in the drivers’ seat of his car, as a suspect described as a stocky Hispanic man with a light complexion and dark clothing walked up, pointed a shotgun into the driver compartment and fired, Gomez said.
The gunman racked the shotgun and fired again, the witness told investigators.
A search of the suspect’s home turned up a receipt for a shotgun pistol- grip, which Ramirez had allegedly purchased online in the weeks before the killing, Gomez said.
The murder weapon has not been found.
Ramirez was arrested in Coachella 15 days after the shooting.
–City News Service