Five young men accused of murdering two Mongols Motorcycle Club patch holders may finally get a preliminary hearing this year. Yesterday, Judge Brian McCabe scheduled that hearing for December 6.
Armando and Mando Lopez, 22; Francisco Esquivel, 21; Joe Castillo, 26; and Isaac Bermea, 19 are accused of killing Mongols Angel Rodriguez, 30, and Ruben Sanchez, 34 in an alley behind a bar called Club Azul in Los Banos, California in the early morning hours of August 7, 2011. Police went to the bar in response to a complaint of a large fight at 1:46 a.m. Police said they heard “several shots” when they arrived and saw people running from an alley behind the bar. Sanchez and Rodriguez were shot there and were pronounced dead where they lay. The two Mongols were blood brothers as well as club brothers.
The five suspects were arrested in multiple locations in late December 2011 and early January 2012. Jose Castillo was arrested by U.S. Marshall’s Deputies in San Jose. Mando and Armando Lopez were arrested in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Francisco Esquivel turned himself in to Los Banos police after the first three suspects were captured. Isaac Bermea was taken into custody for a probation violation the day after Esquivel turned himself in.
From the beginning, police identified the five suspects as Nortenos. The Nortenos, Northeners or Northern Mexicans are a coalition of neighborhood cliques in California north of Bakersfield. The coalition also has a presence in California prisons.
Police called the shooting “gang related” and news reports played the murders as part of a dispute between local Los Banos gangbangers and members of the “Mongols gang.” Los Banos Police Chief Gary Brizzee later told the Los Banos Enterprise that the murders followed “an altercation between members of rival criminal street gangs” in which Sanchez and Rodriguez “got involved.”
Los Banos, a city with a population of about 36,000 in Merced County, was the location of a publicity gang sweep just two months before. One-hundred-one people were arrested. For no logical reason the publicity stunt was “code named Operation Red Zone.” California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris made a stump speech in which she bragged, “As transnational gangs traffic crime into California, we must counter their ruthlessness with our resolve. The arrest of dozens of transnational gang leaders and members frees California from a significant criminal threat.”
There is video surveillance of the incident but it is not very good. The footage was taken by multiple cameras in and around the bar and consists of still photographs taken at five second intervals.
One of the defense attorneys, Tom Pfeiff, told the Enterprise yesterday that the evidence against the accused men is poor. “None of them (the cameras) are aimed at the exact places where everything is going on. It’s really questionable what happened that night.”
Another defense attorney, William A. Davis, said the video “gives us an overview, but it’s not complete.” All five defendants maintain their innocence.
There will be a status conference September 28 to discuss plea bargains.