A 24-year-old gang member was sentenced Friday to 70-years-to-life in prison for the fatal shooting of a 9-year-old Anaheim girl who was playing in front of her home.
Ricardo Cruz and Alfredo Miguel Aquino, 25, were both convicted May 30 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.
Aquino is awaiting sentencing, which is scheduled for Nov. 15.
Relatives of the victim, Ximena Meza, tearfully told Orange County Superior Court Judge Gregg Prickett how her Oct. 22, 2014, killing affected them.
“I have since had to learn to live with the pain of her absence,” the girl’s mother, Ivania Ortiz, said through a Spanish-language interpreter, the Orange County Register reported. “Nothing can fill that void.”
The girl’s father, William Meza, who cradled her as she died, said through an interpreter that it represented “the worst pain that one can suffer in life,” the Register reported.
Cruz denied he was guilty in a statement to the judge.
“Never in my life had I intended, never had I accidentally, never have I thought of hurting a child,” the Register reported he said. “It just breaks my heart to be in this situation, to hear the victim’s loved ones’ statements and to see their pain.”
Just before the two defendants were convicted in May, 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 in May, “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 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 he 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 Meza 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.
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 decided to drive around listening to music, he said. At some point, Aquino drove him home, where Cruz put on a black hoodie and returned to the car, declaring, “I’m packing,” Morrison said. In other words, Cruz was informing Aquino that he was carrying a gun.
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 they stopped five times so Cruz could “tag” a wall with gang graffiti, Morrison alleged.
Aquino, who had been working at a Wienerschnitzel 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.