Just before two men were found guilty Thursday in the fatal shooting of a 9-year-old Anaheim girl who was playing in front of her home, one of the defendants attacked the other in the Santa Ana courtroom.
Ricardo Cruz, 23, and Alfredo Miguel Aquino, 24, were both convicted of second-degree murder, participating in gang activity, possession of a gun by a felon and possession of a gun in a school zone, all felonies. Jurors, who deliberated for about three days, also found true sentencing enhancement allegations of gang activity.
For Cruz, jurors found true a sentencing enhancement for the personal discharge of a weapon and for Aquino the vicarious discharge of a weapon.
Cruz and Aquino, scheduled to be sentenced in August, face at least 40 years to life in prison. Cruz is set to be sentenced Aug. 16 and Aquino on Aug. 30.
The attorneys in the case were in Orange County Superior Court Judge Gregg Prickett’s chambers when Cruz attacked Aquino, setting off a brawl in the courtroom.
After deputies separated the two, Prickett had the verdicts read separately for each defendant.
Aquino’s attorney, Ken Morrison, said, “It’s ironic that Mr. Cruz would assault my client in the courtroom, because Mr. Aquino’s testimony was the only thing that saved Mr. Cruz from a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.”
Morrison had Aquino testify in the trial to reject the prosecution’s legal theory that the pair went out “hunting” for gang rivals when the victim was caught in the crossfire.
Jurors were instructed to consider a full range of verdicts from first-degree special circumstances murder to involuntary manslaughter.
“What you’re about to hear about is a nightmare, an absolute nightmare,” Senior Deputy District Attorney Jeff Moore said in his opening statement. “It’s every parent’s nightmare. And this nightmare was caused by classic, typical gang behavior.”
Ximena Meza was playing with her 5-year-old sister and 7-year-old brother outside their home at 2303 Greenacre Ave. when shots rang out from a 1996 Chevrolet Lumina about 7:15 p.m. on Oct. 22, 2014, the prosecutor said.
The children managed to scramble inside the home, and Ximena’s father noticed his older daughter had a “surprised look on her face” and bent down to be at eye-level with her, Moore said.
When the girl’s father placed his hand on her waist, he felt blood and “knew she was shot,” he said. The father ran out of the house holding his daughter and shouting for help, the prosecutor said, but she “died in his arms” from a through-and-through bullet wound, Moore said.
“The two men who murdered that little girl are sitting right in front of you,” Moore told jurors, pointing to the defendants. “Ximena Maiza became collateral damage in their gang warfare.”
Aquino was behind the wheel of the car when Cruz stepped out of the passenger side and opened fire on rival gang members, Moore alleged.
Before the two drove off, Aquino’s cell phone tumbled out of the car, so he “freaked out” and drove to his ex-girlfriend’s residence for help, the prosecutor said.
The ex-girlfriend, who was the mother of their 2-year-old son, had dated someone who lived on Greenacre, so Aquino asked her to call him to see if he could retrieve the phone, according to Moore. The woman testified that she saw Cruz take off on a skateboard and return without a hoodie witnesses saw the gunman wearing and a can of spray paint he had allegedly been carrying, a clue investigators say is important because there was “fresh” gang graffiti from the defendant’s gang near the crime scene, Moore said.
Morrison said the girl’s killing was a “horrible, very sad tragedy,” but his client is not guilty of intending or planning to kill anyone.
“Even though it was clearly accidental, she was shot to death due to a stupid, senseless act that was apparently motivated out of a desire to intimidate a rival gang,” Morrison said in his opening statement.
Aquino and Cruz, who were friends, ran into each other at an internet cafe earlier that day, and at some point decided to drive around listening to music, he said. Aquino drove Cruz to his home at some point, where Cruz put on a black hoodie and returned to the car declaring, “I’m packing,” Morrison said.
Cruz also picked up a spray paint can left in the car by someone else and began directing Aquino to drive to rival gang territory where the two stopped five times so Cruz could “tag” a wall with gang graffiti, Morrison alleged.
Aquino, who was working at a Wienerschnitzel at the time to support his toddler son, was not aware of Cruz’s intentions, but made the mistake of not telling his friend to get out of the car when he said he had a gun, Morrison said.
The phone tumbled out of the car as Aquino noticed his seat belt was stuck in the door, which he opened to free it just as shots rang out, Morrison said.
Aquino was not aware the girl had been shot and Cruz did not tell him when Aquino asked what had happened, according to the defense attorney, who alleged that Aquino falsely bragged he had fired the gun to “impress” his son’s mother.
The cell phone never provided investigators any forensic evidence because it was too damaged by the time detectives found it, Morrison said, telling jurors that Aquino “may be” guilty of “aiding and abetting,” but there’s no evidence to prove he was a killer.
Cruz’s attorney, Ray Chen, said the only evidence that puts Cruz at the crime scene are the claims of Aquino. There is evidence the two were together before the shooting and after the killing, but there is “a gap” in between, he said.
Also, Aquino said he was shooting at four men while Cruz fired in the opposite direction of the victim, Chen alleged.
“I do not believe there is sufficient evidence to show my client was present in the vehicle,” he said.
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