A 41-year-old twice-convicted killer was sentenced Friday to 35 years to life in prison for slashing the throat of his drug-dealing friend in Costa Mesa.

John Ramon Breceda, who was convicted June 11 of second-degree murder with a sentencing enhancement for the personal use of a deadly weapon and a felony arson count.

Jurors deliberated for about four hours and rejected first-degree murder. Breceda’s trial was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic as the courthouse was closed to help stem its spread, but jurors were later called back to finish the case.

Breceda’s attorney Tom Nocella asked Orange County Superior Court Judge Sheila Hanson to disregard his client’s prior strike and sentence the defendant to 16 years and eight months to life in prison.

But Hanson cited Breceda’s lengthy criminal history in denying the request and allowing for the prior strike to double his sentence.

Senior Deputy District Attorney Heather Brown said “Any attempt to rehabilitate Mr. Breceda has fallen flat and now he has murdered two people… There is no indication whatsoever that he intends to stop committing crimes.”

Hanson agreed.

“You committed the crime of first-degree murder at the age of 14,” Hanson told the defendant.

The judge said Breceda handed a loaded gun to his co-defendant in that killing and instructed him to kill a woman who was yelling at them for selling drugs outside her Santa Ana residence. Breceda was not charged with the crime until a decade later, but it did not serve as a wake-up call, the judge said.

“The court had the opportunity to garner your attention at the age of 25, but it didn’t seem to have any impact of deterring you from future crimes,” Hanson said.

Since he was 19, Breceda has been convicted of 11 felonies in six separate cases, Hanson said.

In 1999, he was sentenced to 16 months in prison; in 2007, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison; and in 2013, he was sentenced to another three years behind bars, Hanson said. Breceda was on post-release community supervision when he committed his most recent murder, she added.

Breceda sustained multiple rules violations while in custody, but not since 2018, when he started working with a rabbi, Hanson said.

“I was very moved by the letter from your rabbi,” Hanson said, adding that she hopes “that work (with the rabbi) continues.”

Breceda, nicknamed Ghost, killed 44-year-old Floriberto “Beto” Villasenor Cortes of Santa Ana on May 30, 2015, Brown said. Cortes “was a drug dealer and not a very good one” because he had a habit of giving drugs to his customers and collecting money later, Brown said in her opening statement of the trial in March.

Cortes asked Breceda to be his “muscle” when he went to collect a drug debt from a customer in the 2900 block of Peppertree Lane, she said. “The man who was supposed to be his muscle… turned on him,” she said. “Why? I don’t know. We may never know.”

Shortly before the attack, Breceda and his on-again-off-again girlfriend, Marcela Raye Gomez-Lee, went to a grocery store to shoplift a knife, Brown said.

Lee, who was once an Orange County Superior Court clerk, was charged as an accessory in the case, but testified with immunity in the trial, Brown said.

A witness called 911 at 4:36 p.m. to report Cortes’ stabbing, she said.

“He had a huge, gaping gash on the side of his neck” and was seen running and bleeding down the street before collapsing, Brown said.

“He coded in the ambulance on the way to the hospital,” Brown said.

Another man was seen leaving the scene “like a bat out of hell” in the victim’s car, she said.

A motel room key and a Domino’s pizza card found at the crime scene led investigators to Lee, who had rented a room at the Eagle Inn & Suites motel at 2255 W. Lincoln Ave., Anaheim, Brown said.

Another break came because a Costa Mesa police officer had driven down Peppertree Lane 15 minutes before the attack and, as was his routine, captured license plates of cars he drove past in the area. That license plate also led police to the victim’s car, which was torched by the defendant in San Juan Capistrano, Brown said.

A sun visor in the victim’s car was discarded as Breceda sped away from the crime scene, and investigators later lifted the defendant’s fingerprint from it, Brown said.

Lee helped Breceda burn down the victim’s car, and after they left the scene, he told her to shut up and keep what happened to herself, Brown said.

Breceda was a codefendant in the March 13, 1994, fatal shooting of 55-year-old Valentina Giles Roque in front of her home in Santa Ana. He was two weeks away from his 15th birthday when Roque was killed and attorneys for him and co-defendant Manuel Rojas got the charges dismissed in April 2009 based on their ages at the time of the shooting.

He and Rojas were not immediately charged after the Roque killing, but Santa Ana police revisited the case in 2008 and linked the two to the killing thanks to improved technology.

Breceda pleaded guilty in Juvenile Court Nov. 18, 2011. Rojas went on trial in Juvenile Court in October 2013 and was convicted in November of that year, but the two did not receive any time in custody because a judge cannot punish defendants older than 25 in juvenile court.

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