Maximum sentences in Santos murder

– Eusebio Rios-Ramos and Eliseo Rojas, the two men convicted of
killing Hollister resident Ralph Santos in 2003, were sentenced to
the maximum allowed under each man’s plea bargain of voluntary
manslaughter in an emotional finale to the nearly two-year
Hollister – Eusebio Rios-Ramos and Eliseo Rojas, the two men convicted of killing Hollister resident Ralph Santos in 2003, were sentenced to the maximum allowed under each man’s plea bargain of voluntary manslaughter in an emotional finale to the nearly two-year ordeal.

San Benito County Superior Court Judge Steven Sanders sentenced Rios-Ramos to 16 years, and Rojas received 11 years and eight months in state prison for stabbing and strangling the 73-year-old man in a mustard seed field. The sentencing came Wednesday after about an hour of emotional testimonials from Santos’ family members, who attempted to sway Sanders’ decision with heart-wrenching stories about their loved one.

They also lambasted Rojas and Rios-Ramos for the killing, and the San Benito County District Attorney’s Office for accepting plea bargains for both men instead of taking the case to trial. About 10 family members spoke, some with tears running down their cheeks and others with a fiery anger directed at the men who killed the elderly father, grandfather, great-grandfather and friend.

“I don’t think 11 years or 16 years is enough. We have a lifetime to deal with this – it’s just not fair,” said Ron Santos, Santos’ son. “Not a day goes by that I don’t wake up depressed. I’m a big man, and I can’t take care of justice. … It’s killing me inside. My heart is broken.”

District Attorney John Sarsfield said the maximum sentences each defendant received are a win for his office and the community.

“We took two dangerous people off the street,” Sarsfield said. “This was not the strongest case and I have an obligation to keep the public as safe as possible for as long as possible. We have to look at all the evidence as it is, not as people wish it to be.”

The family, however, believes there was a mountain of evidence to convict both men at trial and for the past few months worked to get the plea bargains thrown out in a variety of ways. They held protests outside Sarsfield’s office, picketing the prosecutor for what they believed was a soft-on-crime approach to the case. They accused him of cronyism with Rojas’ attorney, Bud Landreth, for taking the plea and also retained attorney Arthur Cantu, who filed a failed motion in January to have the plea bargain set aside.

Sanders also had the opportunity to throw the plea bargains out and order that each man face a jury of their peers. However, he decided to keep the plea bargains and instead sentence them to the maximum time the law allowed.

“The eloquence of the (family’s) statements speak for themselves,” Sanders said. “The statements that I heard will forever echo in my conscience, and I hope they do in yours, Mr. Rojas and Mr. Rios-Ramos. The biggest concern I would have is if we were to go to trial and the defendants were acquitted, and I have to weigh that as well.”

The frustration the family felt over what they believed was total injustice concerning Santos’ killing was apparent during Wednesday morning’s proceeding.

Santos’ youngest daughter, Lorie, stood before Sanders in a T-shirt with her father’s picture on it and spoke of a loving father and grandfather who taught his family the importance of love and forgiveness.

“When I think about my dad now, I see him lying there with his pants down to the ground. This one with his shoelace around his neck and the other one standing there and beating him,” she said, pointing at Rojas and Rios-Ramos. “Those are the memories I have.”

She also criticized Sarsfield for characterizing her father in the media as a homosexual who solicited sex from the men, which is why, the prosecution believes, the two men stabbed and strangled Santos. The family strongly disagrees with that theory and believes Rojas and Rios-Ramos fabricated the story to escape harsher punishment.

“Voluntary manslaughter, as I understand it is an accident. What they did was no accident – they purposefully took this man’s life. To shatter a good man, to take him from us like this so we never, ever forget what you’ve done. Eleven years is wrong, it’s not justice. … I’m not like my dad, I hope you both rot in hell.”

Santos’ body was found stabbed and strangled in a mustard seed field off Buena Vista Road in June 2003. Sarsfield said he accepted the pleas, which were reduced from first-degree murder, because two key pieces of evidence were questionable.

Santos’ remains were so badly decomposed that the coroner could never determine the cause of death. Sarsfield also worried that the two men’s confessions wouldn’t hold up in court because a judge ruled they were not properly informed of their Miranda rights. The family believes the deals were struck because Sarsfield was a personal friend of Landreth, which both Landreth and Sarsfield adamantly deny.

Before Sanders rendered his decision, one of the family’s attorneys, Harry Damkar, argued to set aside the plea bargains and take the case to trial. He said the Santos family was willing to stand behind the prosecution in its endeavor – whatever the outcome.

However, Deputy District Attorney Denny Wei said that based on the dubious evidence they weren’t confident they could come out with a conviction.

“Not one person in this courtroom can give a guarantee that these two defendants will be convicted – that assurance cannot be given,” Wei said. “The prosecution is placed in the position to have to make that call. It’s not a call our office takes lightly, but our office must do what’s right for society to make a deal in this case.”

After the sentencing, family members solemnly filed out of the court room for the last time.

“I’m glad it’s over, but I’m angry at the prosecution,” Lorie Santos said. “The way they handled this whole thing – it’s unbelievable to me. But we’re going to try to put it past us.”

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