A confidential informant—who is related to one of the defendants accused in the 2007 murder of Lorenzo Carachure—broke the case open for authorities and led them to those involved in the murder, according to the case’s prosecutor in his opening statement Tuesday morning, the commencement of what is sure to be a lengthy and complicated trial.
On trial for murder are four defendants—Ruben Mize, Bryan Medinilla, Ricardo Nava, and Raul Diaz—none of whom are older than 21, and all of whom were juveniles at the time of the crime. They all are facing similar, adult charges: murder with a gang enhancement, two counts of attempted murder with a gang enhancement, and one count of being an active participant in a criminal street gang. Mize is also on trial on an attempted murder charge for an assault that took place on January 17, 2008.
Mize’s name is popping up frequently in Superior Court these days, as he has several serious felony cases pending against him. Still a teenager, Mize first became known to police at the age of 12. Specifically, in this most recent case, prosecutor Hans Almgren has alleged that Mize was one of two (Medinilla being the other) who used a knife against Carachure.
In addition to the five charges Mize faces at the Carachure trial, he also faces attempted murder charges for a 2007 stabbing in which the victim was stabbed more than 30 times, charges for an alleged gang-related assault in Juvenile Hall in February 2009, and a charge of inducing or soliciting another to be a part of a gang through a jump-in that allegedly took place in January 2008.
Nava was sentenced in January to 19 years in state prison for attacking a rival Westside gang member in 2007. He pleaded guilty to attempted murder with a gang enhancement.
The prosecution painted a picture Tuesday morning of a callous murder at the hands of a group of people who managed to avoid arrest for some time. Two days prior to the murder, according to Almgren, three people, including Lorenzo Carachure, were attacked on State Street; one of the victims received a broken nose and a black eye. The day of the murder, that same victim was working in the back of the China Pavilion on Chapala Street when Eastsiders allegedly came in and taunted him. Ten minutes later, Almgren said, they returned and said they’d be looking for him later that night.
That prompted him to call his friends, cousins Noe and Lorenzo Carachure, who agreed to walk him home when he got off work that night. At around 10 p.m. the threesome were walking on San Pascual Street, not far from where the three—all of whom were Westside gang members at one time or another—resided, when they were rushed by people screaming “Eastside,” Almgren told the jury of seven women and five men. All three were stabbed, Almgren said. Lorenzo Carachure, 16 years old at the time, was hit in the head with a carjack (Almgren alleges by Raul Diaz) and knocked unconscious, and it was after that that Mize cut Carachure in the neck and Medinilla stabbed the victim in the stomach, according to the prosecutor. He died hours later at Cottage Hospital.
No doubt the X factor in this case will be extracting truthful information from witnesses on the stand. Dozens of witnesses have been subpoenaed and will be sworn in to tell the truth, but gang-related cases can be complicated. Not only do potential threats exist, but several witnesses’ motives for testifying will also be scrutinized.
Three of the defense attorneys made this an issue in their opening statements. Neil Levinson, attorney for Nava, said there was only one witness in the case who was not a gang member, had not worked out a deal with the prosecution, was not biased, and not being paid for his cooperation. And that witness, a man who allegedly saw the scrum from a rooftop on San Pascual, can’t identify any of the combatants, Levinson said. Additionally, “There’s no physical evidence connecting Ricardo Nava to the crime,” he said, a statement later echoed by other defense attorneys about their own clients.
Some witnesses, Levinson said, like Emilio Mora, lied to make a deal with prosecutors and are unreliable. Mora, a longtime Eastside gang member, was charged in this case along with the others, but before the trial he pleaded guilty to two counts of attempted murder with gang enhancements and one count of being an active participant in a street gang. His plea deal, Almgren earlier explained, was contingent on him telling the truth in this trial.
Sam Eaton, attorney for Raul Diaz, told the jury that it was not his client who used the carjack to hit Carachure in the head, but likely Mora. Diaz rode over to the crime scene in the bed of the pickup, and wasn’t aware the others were armed with weapons, Eaton explained. He suggested Mora’s culpability in the crime wasn’t how it was portrayed by the prosecution. Days after the incident, Eaton said, Diaz (who Eaton said was friends with the others, but merely because he lived on the Eastside) was crying in front of others, because he “saw something he shouldn’t have seen.”
As with Mora, Carlos Diaz—who allegedly drove the group to the scene of the crime at the behest of his sister, then a girlfriend of Mize—is expected to testify, having reached a deal with the prosecution. He pleaded guilty to accessory to murder after the fact, with a gang enhancement. He has not been sentenced yet.
Robert Martinez, the older brother of Ruben Mize, was also charged in this case as an accessory to murder after the fact, but his case was severed from the others. He too is expected on the stand, but what he, along with the others, testifies to is still up in the air. “The questions are going to be asked and I’m not really sure what they’re going to say,” Almgren said.
The star of the show Tuesday was Chris Diaz, a cousin of Mize’s who became a confidential informant for authorities when he found out about his cousin’s alleged involvement in the crime. He explained on the stand: “If that had been my son, I wish someone would’ve come forward and said something about it.” He testified that he had had a conversation with Mize and Medinilla in which they both admitted to stabbing the victim, and he later agreed to wear a wire.
Audio from that recording, made when he and Mize were in a car together, was played in court Tuesday. On the recording, Mize can be heard telling Diaz where he “stuck Nemo.” He told his cousin that the “kill shot” was a stab to the neck. He went on to explain that what “helped us out” was that “Nemo” was hit in the head with a carjack, and Carachure “couldn’t get up … arms on the ground like he passed out.” Mize also talked about another incident further down the road on San Pascual—which Almgren is connecting to the attempted murder charge against Mize—and told Diaz, “I was stabbing him in the neck, he was yelling ‘Westside ’til I die!'”
Chris Diaz is now part of the federal witness protection program, moved from Santa Barbara to an undisclosed location, and has a new name. His cooperation with authorities not only led to arrests in this case, but also led to the 2008 federal indictment of dozens of Eastside gang members in Operation Gator Roll.
James Crowder, attorney for Medinilla, said Diaz has been paid handsomely for cooperating with authorities. “Clearly he has a reason to want to please people,” Crowder told the jury, explaining that Diaz can’t be trusted and what he said can’t be corroborated, especially when it comes to his client. Diaz also has a prior record, he pointed out.
Mize’s attorney, Joseph Allen, reserved his right to give an opening statement until he presents Mize’s defense. The trial is expected to run six weeks, and dozens of witnesses, from doctors who treated Carachure at Cottage Hospital, to police detectives, to gang members and associates, are all expected to take the stand.
Cross-examination of Diaz was set to begin Wednesday morning.