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Thursday, 15 March 2012

New testimony forces shooter to plead guilty to 2010 murder


A murder trial that exposed limits to the "don't snitch" mentality that permeates Yakima street gangs ended abruptly with a surprise plea deal. Tomas Villegas, 27, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in the March 2010 shooting of David Duarte, the 40-year-old uncle of a gang member. Authorities believe the gang member was the actual target. As part of the deal, lawyers on both sides agreed to a recommended sentence near the top of the range of 26 1/2 years in prison. Sentencing was set for April 13. He was facing a charge of aggravated first-degree murder, which carries a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole. The plea came late Monday afternoon while the trial was in recess and the jury had been sent home for the day. The deal, which the judge must still approve, concluded a series of actions that began when another suspect in the case, Sergio Villalobos Losoya, 24, reached a plea bargain of his own with prosecutors in exchange for testifying against Villegas. That testimony was critical, as it undercut Villegas' claims that he was not involved in the shooting and that he had alibi witnesses to prove it. Deputy prosecutor Troy Clements expressed relief at the case's sudden resolution, saying gang crimes in general and this case in particular pose many challenges. With Villalobos suddenly willing to cut a deal, there were rumors of threats against his family. A juror was excused over fears of gang intimidation. At least three gang members were jailed as material witnesses to ensure their testimony. "Retaliation was a fear for a lot of people in this," Clements said. "The anti-snitch mentality is very powerful -- for both sides. There's a powerful code of silence out there." Duarte, 40, died from a massive gunshot wound to the head as he was riding in his 15-year-old nephew's car on 16th Avenue near Mead Avenue. Prosecutors said the shooting was the culmination of bad blood between two Norteo gangs -- North Side Villains (NSV) and La Raza -- stemming from the murder of La Raza member Leonardo A. Perez in 2009. Villegas, despite belonging to a Sureo gang called the Pot Head Society, prosecutors said he was friends with Perez and intent on retaliating against NSV enemies if given the chance. That chance occurred just before midnight on March 5, 2010, when Duarte and his nephew, NSV member Cristino Tejada, stopped to buy snacks at the am/pm gas station on the corner of South 16th and Washington avenues. Tejada told police he encountered rival gang members in a white Cadillac at the gas station and that someone in the Cadillac opened fire on his car as they raced down 16th Avenue, fatally wounding his uncle. Clements acknowledged Tuesday that his mostly circumstantial case against Villegas got a huge boost when Villalobos, the alleged driver of the Cadillac, and another person who was allegedly in the suspect car agreed to turn state's evidence. "We went from the fear (Villegas) was going to walk, to holding somebody responsible, so heck yeah you feel good about that," he said. Villegas' attorney, public defender Jeff Swan, said he'd been confident he could win the case until the sudden witness tilt in the prosecution's favor. He said the prosecution's deal with Villalobos was 20 months for a plea to drive-by shooting. Villalobos had been charged with first-degree murder.



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