RIVERSIDE (CNS) - A young man who gunned down an 18-year-old partygoer in an ambush outside a Moreno Valley home where the defendant lured the victim outside on the pretext of fighting him was convicted Thursday of first- degree murder and other offenses.
A Riverside jury deliberated roughly three days before finding 22-year- old Darren Peter Zesk guilty of the 2020 killing of Massai Jevon Cole of Inglewood.
Along with the murder count, the panel found true a special circumstance allegation of lying in wait, as well as convicted Zesk of sentence- enhancing gun and great bodily injury allegations. However, jurors were unable to reach a unanimous verdict on a special circumstance allegation that the slaying was part of a hate crime, and Riverside County Superior Court Judge Bernard Schwartz declared them hung on that charge.
With the lying in wait allegation, Zesk is still facing a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Schwartz scheduled a sentencing hearing for Aug. 25 at the Riverside Hall of Justice. The defendant is being held without bail at the Byrd Detention Center in Murrieta.
The prosecution and defense delivered closing arguments Monday, and the jury went behind closed doors that afternoon to begin deliberations. The panel informed Schwartz before the afternoon lunch break Thursday that a verdict had been reached.
Deputy District Attorney Kevin Beecham told jurors that when Zesk "lured" Cole out of the house at 16512 Century St., he intended to "ambush" the victim, "fulfilling a promise" that he'd made to his cousin, 21-year-old Jared Lee Zesk, to get back at those who had roughed him up at the party house.
According to testimony, the defendant and his cousin joined dozens of others at the location, and as the excitement continued into the predawn hours of Feb. 2, 2020, there were confrontations, including one involving Jared Zesk and several other people, resulting in Zesk taking a few thumps before he was pushed out the door.
Beecham said Darren Zesk was infuriated over his cousin's treatment, and before leaving the premises, he openly vowed to "come back and shoot up the party."
"He went and got guns for him and his cousin, and he returned to the house with a handgun hidden in his waistband," the prosecutor said.
The young Riverside man went in and out of the house multiple times, leaving his cousin near his car parked a short distance away, according to Beecham. Zesk got Cole's attention, in what the prosecutor said was a specific effort to single out a Black person, but what defense attorney Darryl Exum countered was his client's desire to engage anyone he felt had shown disrespect to him and his cousin.
"He was there with a gun because he got disrespected," Exum told jurors. "He wanted to get revenge. But it wasn't against anybody in particular. There is no evidence that he picked out Mr. Cole."
Beecham said that because the defendant had posted "a song about killing Black people" and had used the N-word on various occasions, including in text messages, there was evidence the killing had been racially motivated.
Cole followed Zesk to the side of the party house, as the defendant loudly repeated several times, "We're going to fight," Beecham told jurors, adding that the defendant used the "N" word at least once.
Exum dismissed the idea that the imprecation suggested Zesk's actions were fueled by racial animosity. He played videos from the party in which an unidentified man is heard repeating the "N" word numerous times, referring to his "boys," without eliciting anger from anyone around him.
The attorney also pointed out that Zesk had "pages and pages and pages of Black artists," listing his favorites on social media sites.
According to Exum, his client was "under intense emotion" when he returned to the party armed, and when he attacked Cole, "he shot from the hip," not bothering to take aim because he was motivated only to shoot, not to kill. The attorney contended it was an act of voluntary manslaughter.
"He shot Massai in the back, chest and elbow," Beecham said. "He drew that weapon, pointed it and pulled the trigger."
After the shooting, the cousins fled to Riverside. Cole died at the scene. Witnesses immediately identified the Zesks as the perpetrators, and they were arrested soon afterward.
Jared Zesk pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced last June to 11 years in state prison.
Neither defendant had documented prior felony convictions.
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