A gang member was convicted Monday of first-degree murder in the 2015 Venice boardwalk shooting death of a young man hoping to break into the music business.
Jurors deliberated for roughly nine hours before finding Francisco Cardenaz Guzman, 32, guilty on all counts, including the murder of 26-year-old Jascent Warren, the attempted murder of another victim and possession of a firearm by a felon.
The six-man, six-woman panel also found multiple gun and gang allegations against Guzman to be true.
Warren — known to friends as “Shakespeare,” because of his way with words — was shot to death around 2 a.m. on Aug. 30, 2015, on Ocean Front Walk at Dudley Avenue.
Deputy District Attorney John McKinney told jurors during his opening statement that Guzman was a gang member looking to protect his turf, while defense attorney Garrett Zelen countered that his client was only trying to defend himself from a potentially vicious attack.
Following the verdict, the prosecutor told City News Service it was a hard-fought case.
“On behalf of the District Attorney’s Office and I think I can speak for the Los Angeles Police Department, we are very pleased with these verdicts. The jury held the defendant fully accountable for the charged crimes.”
Sentencing was set for April 17 and Guzman could be sentenced to a maximum of 90 years to life in prison, according to McKinney.
Warren’s family plans to be at the sentencing to offer victims’ impact statements.
“My heart goes out to Mr. Warren’s family. His father has been here since the very beginning of the trial,” the prosecutor said, noting that the trial was more than four weeks long. “I’m very happy for him, I could see a sense of relief.”
McKinney said Warren advocated for the homeless and liked hanging around the boardwalk, though he had a paycheck in his pocket when he was killed.
“He was a very popular young man down in the Venice Beach area,” McKinney said, saying Warren took the time to get to know the people living homeless there. “Unlike most of us who see them and feel a sense of frustration … because they represent a problem that we can’t seem to figure out how to solve, he saw through that and saw the humanity in them … it was in sticking up for them that he lost his life to this gangster.”
Video surveillance from two cameras at a nearby cafe captured the shooting, and the defense didn’t dispute that Guzman fired the shots that killed Warren.
The question is, “Why? Why did Mr. Guzman shoot Mr. Warren?” defense attorney Garrett Zelen told jurors during his opening statement.
A key prosecution witness was Sris Sinnathamby, a 58-year-old real estate investor who once owned and still holds an interest in the Cadillac Hotel on the boardwalk where the shooting occurred. Sinnathamby was arrested at the scene and charged with murder, roughly a month before police arrested Guzman. The men were co-defendants at a preliminary hearing where charges were dismissed against Sinnathamby due to insufficient evidence.
Sinnathamby was given immunity in exchange for his testimony, according to the prosecutor.
The two men were near strangers who ended up together that night by coincidence, McKinney said at the start of the trial, recalling Sinnathamby’s statements to investigators.
The prosecutor characterized Venice as a place where artists, wealthy residents, gang members and homeless people are all part of the mix. The hotel owner was at a local bar with three friends at closing time. When he walked out, unable to call for a ride due to a dead cell phone, Guzman offered them a lift. Because he recognized the man from the bar and around the neighborhood, Sinnathamby and his friends jumped in, according to the prosecutor.
When the SUV stopped at the Cadillac Hotel, Guzman got out and started talking to a homeless man sleeping in front of a restaurant across the street — also owned at the time by Sinnathamby — while the hotel owner went to grab his keys from his own car, McKinney said.
Guzman allegedly threatened the homeless man with a gun and told him to leave and when Sinnathamby returned, he told a second man to move away from the entrance to the hotel.
The two homeless men began shouting and Sinnathamby and Guzman were drawn into an argument with more people down on Ocean Front Walk, the prosecutor said.
“Mr. Warren and his friends were minding their own business when Mr. Guzman came along and brought violence into their world,” McKinney told the jury.
Guzman fired four shots, a bullet hit a man in the leg and Warren got upset.
The prosecutor said a video clip taken on someone’s phone recorded Sinnathamby saying, “Calm down, calm down,” and Warren responding, “You’re telling me to calm down? He’s the one shooting bullets.”
At least one witness told police they heard Guzman say, “This is my neighborhood” and then name his gang, according to the prosecutor, who said Guzman got into the gang life about 10 years ago.
The local gang has ruled the area since the 1960s, making most of their money selling narcotics, McKinney said in his opening, even as a “throwaway part of Los Angeles” gentrified into a more “exclusive” community.
“Wealthy people buy drugs too,” the prosecutor said.
Sinnathamby never felt threatened by the people on the boardwalk and was standing between Warren and Guzman, trying to defuse the situation, according to McKinney.
Warren tried to knock the .40-caliber semi-automatic out of Guzman’s hand and then the defendant fired again, he said. At least three bullets struck Warren, who ran off and then collapsed nearby, McKinney said.
Guzman fled the scene, while Sinnathamby stayed behind and was attacked by two or three people from the crowd, he said.
“From their point of view, it looked like he sicced this guy on him. They thumped him. They assaulted him pretty badly,” the prosecutor said, telling jurors that Sinnathamby suffered head injuries that required 16 staples to close.
Zelen said at the start of the trial that the men who attacked Sinnathamby, beating him to “within an inch of his life,” had posed a grave danger to his client and said Guzman “acted in self-defense and in defense of others.”
He said his client was “someone who may have been in a gang at one time and had to defend his life … He is a human being. He has a right to defend himself.”
The defense attorney said the situation got out of hand and led his client to fire over the heads of a crowd in an attempt to keep the peace.
“Everything was fine until a crowd started to form … threatening, yelling and potentially attacking,” Zelen said. “This case isn’t about gangs. It’s about a homeless population that is made up in some part by mentally ill people.”
The other man cited as a victim in the criminal complaint was struck by a ricocheting bullet, the attorney said.
Guzman only fired at Warren when Warren ran at him and anything else is “complete fabrication,” Zelen said. “At that moment, Mr. Guzman was in fear for his life.”
During his closing argument, the defense attorney said the shooting amounted to “voluntary manslaughter at the worst” and urged the jury to acquit Guzman on the attempted murder charge and reject the gang allegation.
>> Want to read more stories like this? Get our Free Daily Newsletters Here!Follow us: