A 24-year-old man was convicted Wednesday for his role in the fatal shooting of a drug dealer in Placentia, an attack allegedly ordered by the head of the Orange County branch of the Mexican Mafia.
Augustine Velazquez was convicted of murder, conspiracy, burglary and attempted robbery in the Jan. 19, 2017, killing of 35-year-old Robert Rios. Jurors, who deliberated for about a day, also found true special circumstances allegations of murder during a robbery.
Velazquez, who is scheduled to be sentenced July 23, faces life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Before the trial, gang charges in the case were dismissed as fallout from an evidence booking scandal involving multiple deputies who either failed to book evidence or did it after their shift in violation of department policy.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Patrick Donahue granted the motion to dismiss the gang charges because an Orange County sheriff’s deputy who testified during the preliminary hearing as a gang expert was found to have been dishonest while discussing his training regarding booking of evidence.
That made the trial trickier for Senior Deputy District Attorney Dave Porter who was not allowed to mention co-defendant Johnny Martinez, the reputed Mexican Mafia chief for Orange County, who was accused of masterminding the attack on the victim while incarcerated. Porter was also excluded from mentioning the Mexican Mafia at all.
Martinez, 45, is scheduled to go on trial later with co-defendants Gregory Munoz, 33, Ysrael Cordova, 36, and Ricardo Valenzuela, 41.
Velazquez’s attorney, Rob Harley, argued that his client was a minor participant in the crime, so he could not be on the hook for the murder.
“My client was a minor participant,” Harley told City News Service after the verdict. “Nobody accused my client as being the actual shooter.”
Co-defendant Charles Frederick Coghill, 37, was a key witness for the prosecution. Coghill is expected to be given a plea deal eventually.
In his opening statement, Porter told jurors that Munoz, who was also in prison at the time, coordinated the attack on Rios, who was “savagely beaten” when Velazquez, Cordova and Valenzuela showed up his home.
Coghill drove the defendants to Rios’ residence in the 900 block of Vista Avenue, Porter said.
Velazquez was shot in the leg during the scrum with Rios, who fought back, the prosecutor said. The defendant’s cohorts “could care less” about him and Munoz told them to dump him by the side of the road, Porter said.
Coghill dropped Velazquez off at his home, and the defendant called a friend to give him a ride to a hospital in San Diego, Porter said.
The doctors alerted San Diego County sheriff’s deputies, who showed up at the hospital where Velazquez was being treated, he said.
Velazquez told the deputies a “despicable” lie that an “unidentified male Black carrying a Mack-10 semi-automatic firearm attempted to rob him” when he was shot, Porter said. Investigators later pieced together the truth and discovered Rios’ blood on Velazquez’s jacket, he said.
Harley said the crew went to Rios’ home about 11:40 p.m. Rios and another man sold drugs out of the home and had set up an “elaborate” surveillance camera system to alert them when police were approaching, the defense attorney said.
The two thought the three men approaching the home “were another group of customers,” Harley said.
“Rios left the bedroom to greet these people who he thought were there to purchase drugs,” he said.
Munoz was in the business of pushing drugs from behind bars, and Coghill was Munoz’s “right-hand man,” Harley said.
“Mr. Munoz needed Mr. Coghill because he was in state prison and needed someone to run his business on the streets,” the attorney said.
Coghill “was the boss who recruited Cordova, Valenzuela and” two other women, who were “secretaries,” Harley said.
Velazquez at the time was 20 years old and was only involved because Coghill was a neighbor and was helping him earlier that day in a Long Beach salvage yard to get parts to repair the defendant’s car, which was damaged in a hit-and-run, Harley said.
He maintained this his client “number one, was not the shooter and, number two, never intended to kill anybody” when he went along for the drive to Rios’ house. In fact, a highly “intoxicated” Rios “pounded” Velazquez during the conflict, Harley said.
Narrating a video of the attack, he said Velazquez “never pointed a gun at Rios, never attempted to hit Rios with a gun, never hit Rios with his hands.”
Velazquez was seen attempting to hold Rios “down with his left hand,” Harley said. “He never did anything to provoke that violent reaction from Rios.”
The victim had “snorted” methamphetamine and other drugs, “causing this violent sudden outburst” against the defendants, Harley said.
“Mr. Rios continued pounding on Mr. Velazquez until Mr. Rios was shot,” he said.
Velazquez wore a cast on his left leg for a month to treat his gunshot wound, Harley said.