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Defendant Held To Answer to Murder Charges in Fatal Santa Maria Stabbing

The lone adult arrested in connection with a fatal stabbing of a 15-year-old boy in northeast Santa Maria early last year was held to answer to the charges after a preliminary hearing Thursday.

Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Gustavo Lavayen ruled sufficient evidence exists for the now-20-year-old Israel Gaspar Cruz to stand trial. 

Cruz and five others were arrested following the Jan. 25, 2016 fatal stabbing of Marcos Arce Ramos Pena, 15, in the 1600 block of Donovan Road near Suey Road after a confrontation between two groups. 

Pena was a student at Pioneer Valley High School, which is a few blocks from where the stabbing occurred.

In addition to a murder charge, Cruz is accused of wielding the knife during the altercation and being part of a criminal street gang.

Near the end of the preliminary hearing, Deputy District Attorney Mai Trieu noted the victim had 25 stab wounds, which were listed as his cause of death.

Santa Maria police Detective Michael Parker was one of six witnesses who took the stand for the preliminary hearing and testified about the gang culture, telling the court that attacking a rival gang shows dominance. 

“It would be a notch in their belt against their rivals, a way of showing that they're better or tougher than the rival gangs. It would increase that particular gang’s reputation within the community and in the gang world,” Parker said. “In the gang world that gang’s reputation is what allows it to commit crimes.”

Fear of retaliation keeps people from testifying against gangs, Parker said, making the cases difficult to investigate.

“Nobody’s afraid of the Girl Scouts because the Girls Scouts sell cookies. They don’t fight, attack and kill people,” Parker said.

The hearing included the showing a YouTube rap video featuring Cruz, other defendants from the case, a known gang member, and Javier Murillo, the victim of a different homicide in the city.

Israel Gaspar Cruz Click to view larger
Israel Gaspar Cruz

Parker also testified about what a co-defendant, Andrew Molina, now 16, told police about the incident, including seeing the victim bleeding and claiming he said Cruz running away with a 5-inch blade in his hand.

Defense attorney Addison Steele, who is representing Cruz along with defense attorney Andrew Jennings, asked if Molina received a promise of a deal for talking to police.

“He was told that he had to be honest with us, that the proffer was in place to allow him to be honest without fear of incriminating himself legally during the proffer interview,” Parker said.

Preliminary hearings typically do not involve a vigorous defense case seen in trials.

After the judge determined Cruz would answer for the charges, Cruz was ordered to return to court March 8 for arraignment. 

The remaining five defendants, all under 18 years old at the time of their arrests, have pleaded guilty to charges related to fatal stabbing.

Carlos Geovani Perez, now 15, pleaded guilty to assault with a deadly weapon, with enhancements for gang involvement and causing great bodily injury. He will received 12 years in state prison.

Daniel Jaime, now 18, pleaded guilty to assault with a deadly weapon and a gang enhancement. He will be sentenced to eight years.

Pablo Juarez, now 17, also pleaded guilty to assault with force likely to cause great bodily injury plus a gang allegation, with a prison sentence of six years awaiting him.

All three are scheduled to sentenced March 8. 

Last year, Molina pleaded guilty to an added count of assault with force likely to cause great bodily injury plus a gang allegation. His sentencing is now set for May.

Gerardo Gonzalez Flores, now 17, pleaded guilty to assault with a deadly weapon and admitted the gang enhancement. He has been sentenced to eight years in prison.

The fatal stabbing occurred the same day two other men were fatally shot in Santa Maria, during a spike of violence in the city.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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