A former high-ranking gang member testified in the Santa Maria Superior Court trial of a state prison inmate accused of orchestrating the murder of a man in August 2014, revealing jailhouse conversations with one of the other men involved in the crime.
The informant took the witness stand for two days starting late Thursday morning in the trial of Joseph Brian Morales, who has been charged with murder in connection with the death of 37-year-old Javier Alcantar Limon.
Limon’s body was found near farm fields along West Main Street west of Guadalupe after he had been shot multiple times in what Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department detectives called a drug- and gang-related crime.
While four others have taken plea deals for their roles in the killing, Morales, who was incarcerated in Lancaster at the time of the killing, remains the only defendant whose fate will be left up to a jury.
On Thursday, jurors heard from Ernest Gil, who received a plea deal in exchange for testifying for the prosecution, and listened to recorded conversations between him and one of the defendants, Arturo Granados, who since has pleaded guilty.
However, Gil, also known as “Big Stretch,” shared about talks the cellmates had that weren’t recorded but centered on the circumstances involving Limon’s killing.
A former co-defendant, Gregorio “Damage” Augustine, relayed the order to take action, saying Limon’s “got to go,” the witness testified.
“They wanted him murdered. They wanted him dead,” Gil said in response to a question from Chief Deputy District Attorney Cynthia Gresser about what the order meant.
Granados claimed he drove the vehicle that picked up Limon, and took him to Guadalupe at gunpoint.
“He knew something bad was going to happen, and he was just pretty much pleading to clean up his mess,” Gil said of the shooting victim.
While Morales was incarcerated in state prison at the time of Limon’s killing, he still played a role, communicating via a cellphone he improperly had while imprisoned, the prosecution team contends.
Under questions from Gresser, Gil admitted he was “super nervous” about testifying in the case and against his former gang colleagues.
“There’s a target on your head, you know,” Gil said, adding that those who cooperate with law enforcement were considered a “rat” and “snitch.”
He matter of factly told about jumping into a gang at age 12 and later committing crimes, including stealing and stabbing that landed him behind bars and other incidents that never led to charges.
On Thursday afternoon, defense attorney Michael Scott questioned the witness, who said his cellmate claimed “the padrinos,” or “godfathers,” wanted something done to Limon, a drug dealer who had failed to pay taxes.
“Over these multiple days, and hours and hours of conversation, does Mr. Granados ever, ever, for a moment, say the words Joseph Morales? Does he ever say Morales? Does he ever say Littles?” Scott asked, using the moniker for his client.
Gil answered no to each question.
“But he, Mr. Granados, does mention Damage, correct?” the defense attorney asked, using a former co-defendant’s gang moniker.
The witness also testified that Evil, a Santa Barbara-based gang member Ruben Regalado who led the Surenos at one time, came up in the talks.
Additionally, Scott inquired about the so-called “peace treaty” in effect between the Northwest and West Park gangs in 2014.
“Where does the order for a peace treaty come from? I assume it comes from up high somewhere, correct?” Scott asked.
“Yeah, it does. And it comes a lot from the older homies, too,” Gil said.
Gil also testified Friday morning, finishing up at noon.
“At the end of the day, while this is a culture and this is a large family, it’s about the money, isn’t it?” Scott asked.
“That’s all it’s about,” Gil answered.
Testimony is expected to last through September before Judge James Voysey. The trial is scheduled to resume Tuesday afternoon.