SANTA ANA (CNS) - A 26-year-old man was sentenced Friday to life in prison without the possibility of parole for his part in the fatal shooting of a drug dealer in Placentia, an attack allegedly ordered by the reputed head of the Orange County branch of the Mexican Mafia.
Augustine Velasquez was convicted June 30, 2021, of murder, conspiracy, burglary and attempted robbery in the Jan. 19, 2017, killing of 35- year-old Robert Rios. Jurors, who deliberated for about a day, also found true special circumstances allegations of murder during a robbery.
Velasquez's attorney, Robison Harley, argued a motion for a new trial, but Orange County Superior Court Judge Patrick Donahue denied it. The judge found that even if defense attorneys had evidence that surfaced after trial about one of the witnesses it wouldn't have mattered since the killing was captured on video.
Donahue also denied Harley's argument that Velasquez was a "youthful offender" at the time at 20 years old, and jurors should have received an instruction about that. But Donahue noted the defendant was 20 years and six months old at the time and it was not required to point out that fact to jurors.
Donahue said Velasquez "received a fair trial."
The judge noted that he asked Deputy District Attorney David Porter to make an offer to the defendant, and he did. Porter offered 22 years in exchange for a manslaughter plea, Donahue said.
"I encouraged Mr. Porter to make a fair offer and he did," Donahue said. "And the court gave Mr. Velasquez the time to consider that offer and it was a good offer. But when that's not accepted, what do you do? You go to trial. That's the way it works."
Donahue tacked on three years to the life in prison without the possibility of parole. He ran 11 years and four months on the other charges concurrent with the life sentence.
Before the trial, gang charges in the case were dismissed as fallout from an evidence booking scandal involving multiple deputies who either failed to book evidence or did it after their shift in violation of department policy.
Donahue granted the motion to dismiss the gang charges because an Orange County sheriff's deputy who testified during the preliminary hearing as a gang expert was found to have been dishonest while discussing his training regarding booking of evidence.
That made the trial trickier for Porter, who was not allowed to mention co-defendant Johnny Martinez, the reputed Mexican Mafia chief for Orange County, who was accused of masterminding the attack on the victim while incarcerated. Porter was also excluded from mentioning the Mexican Mafia at all.
Charges against Martinez, 47, Gregory Munoz, 35, Ysrael Cordova, 38, and Ricardo Valenzuela, 43, were dropped by the Orange County District Attorney's Office as federal prosecutors charged them in a separate case that includes this killing.
Harley argued at trial that his client was a minor participant in the crime, so he could not be on the hook for the murder.
Co-defendant Charles Frederick Coghill, 39, was a key witness for the prosecution. Coghill was out of custody now.
In his opening statement, Porter told jurors that Munoz, who was also in prison at the time, coordinated the attack on Rios, who was "savagely beaten" when Velasquez, Cordova and Valenzuela showed up his home.
Coghill drove the defendants to Rios' residence in the 900 block of Vista Avenue, Porter said.
Velasquez was shot in the leg during the scrum with Rios, who fought back, the prosecutor said. The defendant's cohorts "could care less" about him and Munoz told them to dump him by the side of the road, Porter said.
Coghill dropped Velasquez off at his home, and the defendant called a friend to give him a ride to a hospital in San Diego, Porter said.
The doctors alerted San Diego County sheriff's deputies, who showed up at the hospital where Velasquez was being treated, he said.
Velasquez told the deputies a "despicable" lie that an "unidentified male Black carrying a Mack-10 semi-automatic firearm attempted to rob him" when he was shot, Porter said. Investigators later pieced together the truth and discovered Rios' blood on Velasquez's jacket, he said.
Harley said the crew went to Rios' home about 11:40 p.m. Rios and another man sold drugs out of the home and had set up an "elaborate" surveillance camera system to alert them when police were approaching, the defense attorney said.
The two thought the three men approaching the home "were another group of customers," Harley said.
"Rios left the bedroom to greet these people who he thought were there to purchase drugs," he said.
Munoz was in the business of pushing drugs from behind bars, and Coghill was Munoz's "right-hand man," Harley said.
"Mr. Munoz needed Mr. Coghill because he was in state prison and needed someone to run his business on the streets," the attorney said.
Coghill "was the boss who recruited Cordova, Valenzuela and" two other women, who were "secretaries," Harley said.
Velasquez was only involved because Coghill was a neighbor and was helping him earlier that day in a Long Beach salvage yard to get parts to repair the defendant's car, which was damaged in a hit-and-run, Harley said.
He maintained this his client "number one, was not the shooter and, number two, never intended to kill anybody" when he went along for the drive to Rios' house. In fact, a highly "intoxicated" Rios "pounded" Velasquez during the conflict, Harley said.
Narrating a video of the attack, he said Velasquez "never pointed a gun at Rios, never attempted to hit Rios with a gun, never hit Rios with his hands."
Velasquez was seen attempting to hold Rios "down with his left hand," Harley said. "He never did anything to provoke that violent reaction from Rios."
The victim had "snorted" methamphetamine and other drugs, "causing this violent sudden outburst" against the defendants, Harley said.
"Mr. Rios continued pounding on Mr. Velasquez until Mr. Rios was shot," he said.
Velasquez wore a cast on his left leg for a month to treat his gunshot wound, Harley said.