In yet another bizarre twist in the ongoing attempt to bring five suspects in the 2011 drive-by shooting that killed 14-year-old Tara Romero to trial, the attorney for one of the suspects had to recuse himself from the case Friday because his office is representing a victim of that shooting who is now a suspect in an unrelated violent crime spree that happened earlier this year in San Jose.
Ezra Santana, 18, was standing near Romero and her friends at the intersection of Cosmo and Del Monte avenues in southwest Morgan Hill the night of the shooting – Nov. 4, 2011 – when the Chrysler 300M allegedly carrying five suspected Sureno gang members drove by and opened fire, killing Romero and injuring her three teenage friends, according to witness testimony this week in the preliminary hearing for the suspects.
Santana was not injured in the shooting, but prosecutors intended to call him as a witness in this week’s hearing at the Hall of Justice in San Jose. The purpose of the hearing is to allow the judge to determine if there is enough evidence for the case to go to a jury trial.
Santana was served with a subpoena at Santa Clara County Jail, where he has been since his arrest Jan. 25 on suspicion of attempted murder, robbery and other charges, according to authorities.
Specifically, in a series of incidents that are wholly unrelated to the 2011 drive-by shooting, Santana is accused of being involved, with two other suspects, in a string of violent robberies in January, according to Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney Frank Carrubba. He allegedly helped rob a taco truck, robbed and tried to kill a band member outside a bar, robbed a Wienerschnitzel restaurant and assaulted a cashier, and broke into the home of an elderly couple in Almaden Valley and duct taped the residents up while he and other suspects burglarized the home.
All of the crimes happened in San Jose, Carrubba said. Santana is charged with several counts of robbery, assault with a deadly weapon, home invasion, kidnapping and false imprisonment, Carrubba said. He is charged with enhancements on some of the allegations because he was armed with a .38-caliber handgun and a knife.
This week, attorneys involved in the Morgan Hill 2011 drive-by case learned that Santana is represented by the Santa Clara County Alternate Defender’s Office. An attorney from that office, Al Lopez, also represents Esmeling Bahena, 19 of Morgan Hill, a suspect in the Morgan Hill drive-by shooting.
Bahena and four others – Ramon Gutierrez, 18 of Morgan Hill; Ricardo Diaz, 20 of Morgan Hill; Fernando Mateo Lopez, 21 of Gilroy; and Primitivo Hernandez, 24 of San Jose – are charged with murder and attempted murder, with gang enhancements, in relation to the 2011 drive-by shooting.
“We have to declare a conflict,” Al Lopez told the court Friday. “We did not have (Santana’s) date of birth until today, and we had no way of identifying him until today.”
Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney Peter Waite, who is the lead prosecutor in the Romero murder case, visited Santana at the jail Friday morning for a pre-testimony interview, but he was “not cooperative.” Waite added it is unlikely, but possible, that he will still attempt to call Santana as a witness to the drive-by shooting. Either way, he will likely be listed as a victim of that incident.
According to testimony Thursday by two other victims of the Morgan Hill drive-by attack – Rosa Castaneda, 16, and Alex Chavez, 16 – Santana was hanging out near the group of friends on a grassy area just outside the Village Avante apartment complex when the shooting happened. Santana escaped the gunfire without injuries by running away.
Castaneda was shot in the stomach, and two others – Alicia Sotelo, 15, and Chris Loredo, 16 – were each shot in the leg. Romero, Castaneda, Sotelo, Loredo and Chavez were friends and classmates at Sobrato High School who had been celebrating Chavez’ birthday earlier that night at a nearby bowling alley and the Morgan Hill Community Park on Del Monte Avenue.
The five teens were waiting for a ride home when the shooting happened, according to testimony in the preliminary hearing.
Police testified this week that after being read their Miranda rights following their arrest for the murder Nov. 5, 2011, at least three of the shooting suspects acknowledged an ongoing “beef” with rival Norteno gang members in the area of Village Avante during the days leading up to the drive-by attack. That feud included numerous incidents of vandalism to the suspects’ vehicles and one of their homes, and a Halloween 2011 drive-by shooting in the same area that did not result in any injuries. Bahena allegedly carried out the Halloween shooting.
The shooting victims were not involved in that feud or any other gang-related activity, police said.
The preliminary hearing for Diaz, Mateo Lopez and Gutierrez (Hernandez has not participated this week because his attorney is on another trial out of town) will continue Monday in San Jose. The court and attorneys will determine then if the hearing can proceed without Bahena, who will likely have to face a separate preliminary hearing in the future, Waite said.
To read more about earlier testimony in this week’s preliminary hearing for the 2011 murder suspects, click here.