MNLA photo by Jay Martin

Two men involved in the 1993 melee that killed a 17-year-old San Clemente boy had their murder convictions overturned Thursday by an Orange County Superior Court judge based on a new law prohibiting the convictions of defendants not directly involved in a murder.

Rogelio Vasquez Solis, 45, and Saul Penuelas, 46, both had their second-degree murder convictions vacated by Orange County Superior Court Judge Cheri Pham. Instead, she re-sentenced the pair to 18 years in prison for assault with force likely to produce great bodily injury, said Solis’ attorney, Randy Ladisky.

Because both men have been behind bars for 29 years they are not expected to serve any more time. Solis was being held in Orange County Jail so it will take a week or so to process him out of the system and free him, Ladisky said.

Penuelas was recently granted parole and appears to be out of custody. He is not listed in custody in state prison records.

The two will be placed on two years of parole supervision, but if they remain out of trouble that time could be shortened, Ladisky said.

The two were convicted in connection with the Oct. 15, 1993, melee at Calafia State Beach that left Steve Woods dead.

The trouble started about 9:30 p.m. when a “caravan of four cars” full of high school students, who were hanging out after a football game, were speeding away from a group of other youths they came in conflict with, Ladisky said in court papers. The conflict started when one youth punched another student for “flipping him off” the day before at school, Ladisky said.

Based on what the group said, the teens in the cars believed they were being attacked by gang members so they began speeding away to warn other fellow students, and that prompted several beachgoers, including Solis, to hurl objects at the cars, Ladisky said. A paint roller impaled Woods in his head, Ladisky said.

Solis chucked a “dirt clod” at the cars, Ladisky said.

Solis and Penuelas were convicted in 1996 and sentenced in March 1997 to 15 years to life in prison. They were convicted under a legal standard of aiding and abetting the killing, but that law was changed in 2019 to require a defendant’s more direct participation in a killing to be held liable for a murder.

Co-defendant Arturo Villalobos admitted hurling a paint roller at the car and pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter and admitted a sentencing enhancement for gang activity in January 1994 and was sentenced to six years in prison, according to court records.

When Pham told the defendants she was vacating the murder convictions, Solis smiled, Ladisky said.

“So the whole time as she read her ruling, Rogelio’s face just lit up and there was a smile from ear to ear — and that was really the only emotion,” Ladisky said. “He’s a very soft spoken guy and spent 29 years in prison for throwing a dirt clod at a car.”

The defense attorney said Woods’ fat “was an awful, gruesome death that nobody should have to endure and nobody should have to endure as a parent. Our client had expressed remorse at the time, and I think everybody felt sorry that someone died. It’s awful. No parent should have to go through that. I don’t hold any grudges against a mom for her advocacy for her son.”

Woods’ mother, who lives out of state, participated in the hearing via video, Ladisky said.

“But the legislature has spoken and the law that put Rogelio away has been changed,” Ladisky said.

“I’m happy for his family,” Ladisky said of his client. “Their son gets to come home after all these years. I’m hoping he gets a second shot at life, and I’m grateful to give him that chance. I know he will be successful at whatever he does.”

Ladisky praised Pham’s thorough review of the case which included reading a thousand pages of court transcripts.

In her ruling, Pham said, “No one identified either petitioner as having thrown a paint roller, which was what ultimately killed the victim.

In fact, no one identified either petitioner as even being present at the scene. But for their own statements admitting that they threw rocks and dirt clods at the cars driven by the victim’s friends and companions, the petitioners before the court might not have even been prosecuted.”

Pham rejected arguments from prosecutors that the two aides and abetted a “life-endangering act.”

Pham said prosecutors failed to show any law or “analogous cases wherein throwing an object at a vehicle constitutes an act that is inherently dangerous to human life.”

Pham conceded that in some cases hurling an object at a car could be deadly it was not true in all instances.

Solis “arrived in a separate car from Penuelas” to the beach, Pham noted. “Mr. Penuelas drove his father’s truck, which had paint supplies in the back. Both petitioners grabbed rocks and/or dirt clods (i.e. whatever was quickly accessible to them as the victim drove away) and threw them at the victim’s vehicle.”

Pham added that, “While the outcome in this case was without a doubt extremely tragic, and nothing will ever take away the pain caused by the loss of a life so young and so full of promise, the evidence does not show beyond a reasonable doubt that the petitioners personally harbored the requisite mental state of implied malice required for second degree murder, especially when the trial prosecutor himself argued against a theory of aiding and abetting an implied malice murder.”

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