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Local News

Suspect Held to Answer to Murder Charge After Preliminary Hearing in 2008 Guadalupe Case

A man has been held to answer to a charge of murder in connection with a fatal gang-related stabbing in Guadalupe nearly 10 years ago following a preliminary hearing Friday in Santa Maria Superior Court.

Leonel Adrian Torres, 34, faces one count of murder and special allegations for use of a weapon and gang involvement.

“I think for the purpose of a preliminary hearing, the evidence put forth satisfies the standard to hold the defendant to answer to count one,” Judge Timothy Staffel said after the hearing that lasted about an hour.

Torres and others were involved in an altercation with a rival gang member at Roy’s Liquor and Market on Guadalupe Street, leading to the death of James Michael Christie, 24, on Aug. 16, 2008

Torres was one of four suspects identified as being involved in the incident, but had escaped arrest for a number of years even as two others were tried and convicted of the homicide. 

During the preliminary hearing, two law enforcement officers testified about the incident and Deputy District Attorney Lynmarc Jenksin showed surveillance video from the attack.

DA investigator Paul Zellis, formerly with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department, said the incident began when one of the suspects asked Christie, “Who the f—k are you?’

“Mr. Christie’s response was, ‘I’m Wicked from the Santa Maria projects,'” Zellis said. 

Torres allegedly knocked Christie to the ground, where others kicked him before the man ultimately was stabbed in his upper chest.

Arturo Franco Palomar, 34, was convicted of wielding the weapon used to stab Christie. He and a second man, Jose Juan Morales Jr., 36, were convicted of murder and sentenced to state prison in 2010. A fourth man involved in the incident testified for the prosecution. 

An arrest warrant was issued for Torres, who was arrested and returned to Santa Barbara County to face charges in late 2016.

In addition to Zellis, Deputy Steven Gonzales testified about his knowledge of gang activity in Guadalupe, where members get protective of their own territory.

“The city of Guadalupe is their territory,” he said. 

Christie reportedly belonged to the Santa Maria-based Northwest gang.

In response to a photo of several men accused of committing the fatal stabbing, Gonzales noted that those pictured were displaying gang signs.

Attacking a rival gang member in Guadalupe’s territory can bring notoriety, Gonzales said, recalling gangs saving media reports of attacks.

“It’s a shrine, actually,” he said. 

Defense attorney Michael Hanley asked whether the deputy knew how many gang members Guadalupe had in 2008. Gonzales estimated that the city had 150 gang members and associates, noting that the number is always in flex.

The purpose of a preliminary hearing is to determine whether enough evidence exists for a defendant to stand trial on the charges and typically includes limited presentation from the defense. 

After his ruling, Judge Staffel ordered Torres to return to court May 31 for his arraignment on the charges and to remain in custody without bail. 

Of the many homicide cases making their way through the North County court system, this one is believed to be the oldest. 

In another older case, a jury reached a verdict on Monday, finding Eduardo R. Robles guilty of killing his girlfriend, Selina Bustos, in Lompoc in 2012. He also had fled the country.

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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