Jurors completed their first full day of deliberations Monday without reaching a verdict in the trial of an admitted gang member accused in a 2017 shooting at a Cathedral City bar that left a man severely injured.
Thomas Zaragoza, 39, of Desert Hot Springs faces a maximum life sentence if convicted of one count each of attempted murder, assault with a gun and criminal street gang activity. He also faces several gun- and gang-related sentence-enhancing allegations.
Riverside County Superior Court Judge Timothy Freer sent jurors behind closed doors to begin weighing evidence Thursday afternoon, and they did not meet on Friday. The panel will return to the Southwest Justice Center in Murrieta on Tuesday morning to resume deliberations.
The defendant is accused of shooting Mike Avila after an argument erupted at what was then The Block Sports Bar & Grill at Ramon Road and Date Palm Drive on the night of July 26, 2017. The business is now known as Henry’s Sports Bar & Grill.
Zaragoza was arrested along with three other men: Andrew Monroy, 26, and Carlos Rodriguez, 29, both Cathedral City residents; and Ricky Ceballos, 28, of Desert Hot Springs. Those three men have pleaded guilty in the case.
According to Deputy District Attorney Jenna Barsamian, Zaragoza’s three friends got into an argument with Avila at the bar before it escalated into a fight about 11 p.m. One of the men swung twice at the victim, but failed to connect with either blow.
The prosecution alleges Zaragoza then entered the bar and immediately pulled out a gun and opened fire on the victim from close range. Another man was also shot in the foot sometime that evening, according to authorities.
Barsamian alleged that all four men are members of the same Cathedral City criminal street gang, and that the argument erupted because the men viewed the victim and his wife as “outsiders.”
According to the prosecution, Avila grabbed a pool cue to defend himself. He was at the bar celebrating his wife’s birthday that night, according to his family.
Avila could be heard telling the suspects before the shooting, “Hey, I don’t even know who you are. I just want to leave,” according to court papers.
Barsamian said the victim was struck by two gunshots, one of which was fired while he was running away.
Zaragoza took the stand in his own defense last Tuesday. He admitted to his role in the shooting and to being a member of a criminal street gang based in Cathedral City, but maintained that the shooting was an accident, and not gang-related.
He also said his gun fired a single bullet that struck Avila — not two — and that it only happened because the victim tried to grab for the weapon.
“He’s the reason the gun went off. He’s the one that was trying to take it from me,” Zaragoza testified. “I never even aimed it at him.”
As the defendant tells it, he was smoking a cigarette outside the bar when he re-entered the establishment to a fight already in progress. Zaragoza said he and his friends were at the bar celebrating a new construction job he had recently landed, and were not looking for a fight.
Zaragoza said he then saw the victim holding a pool cue.
“He was ready to (expletive) somebody up,” the defendant said.
In response, Zaragoza said he raised his shirt in order to show Avila he had a gun in a bid to cool off the situation.
“I showed him my gun, but I left it in my shirt,” he testified. “I was trying to get him to … stop.”
Zaragoza said Avila then went for his gun, unsuccessfully, which resulted in a single gunshot being fired.
Additionally, Zaragoza admitted to intentionally firing several gunshots at a wall — he said he did so in a further attempt to settle the situation down — but denied that he at any point sought to shoot anybody.
Zaragoza said one gunshot actually struck Avila, and that it entered the victim’s hand before continuing into his abdomen.
The four men were arrested at a Banning gas station two days after the shooting.
The handgun used in the shooting was never recovered, Barsamian said.
According to his family, Avila underwent multiple surgeries and was hospitalized for several months in an intensive care unit.
Monroy, Rodriguez and Ceballos agreed to a deal with prosecutors in January 2020 in which they pleaded guilty to assault causing great bodily and admitted to a gang-related sentence-enhancing allegations and were each sentenced to eight years in state prison.
The men were originally charged with attempted murder, assault with a gun and gang activity charges as well, but those counts were dismissed in exchange for their pleas.
Zaragoza, who has felony convictions including spousal abuse and petty theft with priors, is being held on $1 million bail at the Robert Presley Detention Center in Riverside.
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