Suspects accused of killing teen Tara Romero plead not guilty

Tara Romero's sister Regina Zamora, from San Jose, right, embraces her stepmother Annette Nevarez at the end of a dedication ceremony Thursday for a memorial garden in honor of Tara Romoero at Martin Murphy Middle School in San Jose.

A preliminary hearing for the five suspects accused of killing Tara Romero, 14, in a drive-by shooting in Morgan Hill Nov. 4, 2011 was set at their latest hearing.

The five men accused of murder and attempted murder appeared Thursday at the Hall of Justice in San Jose, where the four-day preliminary hearing was set for Feb. 11, 2013, according to Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney Peter Waite.

Esmeling Bahena, 18 of Morgan Hill; Ricardo Diaz, 19 of Morgan Hill; Fernando Mateo Lopez, 20 of Gilroy; Primitivo Hernandez, 23 of San Jose; and Ramon Gutierrez, 17 of Morgan Hill are each charged with murder and attempted murder, with enhancements for being associated with an illegal street gang.

The suspects pleaded not guilty to the charges, Waite said.

The suspects are accused of driving through the intersection of Cosmo and Del Monte avenues in south Morgan Hill and opening fire at Romero and a group of teens standing outside the Village Avante apartment complex.

Romero, a Morgan Hill resident and Sobrato High School freshman, was shot and pronounced dead at the scene by paramedics. Three of her friends – Rosa Castaneda, 14, Alicia Sotelo, 15, and Chris Loredo, 16 – were shot and injured in the same incident.

While the suspects are thought to be associated with a criminal street gang and carried out the shooting for that gang, police have said the victims are not associated with any gang-related activity and were likely targeted by mistake. They were waiting at the intersection for a ride home from a birthday party at the nearby Community Park.

All four victims were Sobrato students at the time of the shooting.

Police arrested the five suspects shortly after the shooting. The suspects continued driving past the scene after the shooting, and an officer in the area saw the car run through a stop sign on Spring Avenue and immediately turned around to pursue it, police said.

By the time the officer caught up to the car at a Barnell Avenue residence, he heard about the shooting on the radio.

The officer called for backup, and police from Morgan Hill, Gilroy, the sheriff’s office and California Highway Patrol surrounded the home and contained traffic, authorities said. Police safely arrested all five suspects.

Found at the home were a .22-caliber revolver and a loaded SKS assault rifle, police said.

Romero’s mother Annette Nevarez recently founded a nonprofit in her daughter’s name known as “Everyone’s Child, the Tara Romero Youth Empowerment Project.” The nonprofit organized under the Morgan Hill Community Foundation is raising money to erect a bronze sculpture of Romero’s likeness to be displayed on public property in Morgan Hill.

The nonprofit will also work to raise money, on an ongoing basis, for youth scholarships, nonprofit youth organizations and other local groups that share the new nonprofit’s vision.

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