Two mothers sat on opposite sides of a courtroom. One was waiting for justice for her slain son and the other was waiting to hear if her two sons would ever know freedom again.
Both sides were surrounded by family and friends and the tension in the courtroom was palpable as everyone waited for the final word to come down, and when the guilty verdict was announced there were two mothers left in tears — one in relief and one in despair.
After five weeks of testimony and arguments from both the prosecution and defense, a Stanislaus County jury of nine women and three men took about two and a half hours to reach a guilty verdict for brothers Raymond “Raymo” Gutierrez and Alvaro “Tito” Saldana for the murder of 26-year-old Roger Villanueva on May 25, 2008, in Turlock.
Gutierrez, 31, and Saldana, 26, both of Turlock were each found guilty of first-degree premeditated murder with firearm and gang enhancements. The jury agreed with the prosecution’s claim that the murder of Villanueva was done to benefit the Norteño criminal street gang.
Both defendants waived their rights to another jury trial in regards to prior offenses and instead opted for a court trial, scheduled for 1:30 p.m. today. Deputy District Attorney Thomas Brennan, who prosecuted the case for the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office, said the two men have prior strike convictions, which could leave them facing a minimum of 80 years to life behind bars. A sentencing hearing will be scheduled at a later date.
Villanueva was a former Norteño gang member who had distanced himself from the gang by moving to Arizona. His return trip to Turlock to perform at a local rap concert and attend a memorial service for Moses Rodriguez, who was shot to death in 2006, would be tragically cut short.
It was at a memorial barbecue for Rodriguez that Villanueva would cross paths with Gutierrez and Saldana for the final time, but it was hardly the first meeting between the three men.
At one time they all ran together as part of the Norteño gang present in Turlock’s Westside. But as time went by Villanueva’s focus was less on the gang and more on his aspirations of rap stardom under the moniker of “Smoke da Villain.” As a result, Villanueva increasingly found himself on the outs with the gang, especially because he continued friendships with individuals who had dropped out of the gang or had fallen out of favor with them.
Confrontations between the three men were increasing and at a wedding reception in Hilmar it erupted into violence. During a melee between guests and wedding attendants, Villanueva came to the aid of an individual who had been labeled a “degenerate” by the gang and in the process, he knocked out Saldana. Brennan said aiding someone who was on the outs with the gang was tantamount to committing “an act of treason” in the eyes of the gang.
It was this fight and the perceived disrespect that it caused that the prosecution said spurred the two brothers to exact revenge on Villanueva.
The men next saw each other on the afternoon of May 25, 2008, at the Angelus Street barbecue and within a short time Villanueva would be lying dead from multiple gunshot wounds.
The jury was presented with two theories as to how Villanueva was fatally shot behind a vacant dwelling.
The defense said Gutierrez accidentally shot Villanueva when he was kicked in the chin and the gun, which was modified into an automatic, went off repeatedly. The defense claimed it was Villanueva who brought the gun to the gathering and that Gutierrez got a hold of it during a struggle. Defense Attorney Frank Carson also said shooting Villanueva was an act of self-defense.
The prosecution presented an entirely different account of the fateful events. They said it was planned for Saldana to lure Villanueva into the backyard with the promise of settling their dispute. The prosecution said Villanueva was ambushed by Gutierrez, who shot him multiple times, including one at close range to the head.
Gutierrez and Saldana fled the crime scene following the shooting and were apprehended weeks later in the Sacramento area. The car they used had been set on fire.
A major component of the trial was the gang enhancement. The district attorney’s office was tasked with proving that the murder was committed to aid the Norteño gang.
Though not approved beforehand by the gang, Brennan said the killing of Villanueva was ruled justified by the gang because it would send a message to all gang members not to help those who had fallen out of favor with the gang.
After the verdict was given, Brennan had his own message for gang members.
“I want all gang members to know that we will continue to vigorously and mercilessly pursue those in their ranks who choose to live the violent gang lifestyle the community is all too familiar with,” Brennan said. “Often times innocent bystanders are caught in the gang cross fire. Often times rival gang members fall in a hail of gunfire. Other times gang members turn on one of their own which happened in this case. The gang prosecutors in Stanislaus County do not pick and choose their victims for prosecution. Our office values all human life and will continue to bring justice to the community through vigorous prosecution of gang members and associates.”
In proving the gang enhancement, Brennan used the defendants own words against them. When the two men were booked into Stanislaus County Jail they filled out “wilas,” which are notes written in tiny script that serve as ways to communicate with other gang members, both in jail and in prison. In this case the “wilas” were used as a new arrival questionnaire. While the confiscated items did not contain an outright confession, the “wilas” did go into detail about how Villanueva had turned his back on the gang. Brennan said this was a way for the two men to explain the violence as justifiable and in the gang’s best interest.
Security was of an utmost issue as the verdicts were delivered. Several bailiffs stood watch and kept those present in the galley from leaving until the jury had been escorted away. Some jurors also opted for armed escorts to their vehicles.
Given the packed courtroom and the high emotions, Judge Thomas Zeff warned those in attendance that emotional outbursts would not be tolerated. Even so, both sides of the courtroom let out audible sobs when the guilty verdicts were read.
Outside the courtroom the defendants’ family and friends gathered in disbelief. With a visible sadness etched on her face, the mother of the two brothers waited in the hallway to see them one more time as they were escorted back to the jail.
In a courthouse hallway downstairs it was a different scene as the jurors gathered with the prosecutor, investigators and Villanueva’s family and friends. As they proceeded out a back exit, Debi Dunuan, Villanueva’s mother, hugged each one of them and thanked them as the tears rolled down her face and a tattooed image on her shoulder blade of her lost son peaked out from her tank top.
“This is such a relief,” Dunuan said. “I can’t really explain it, but I feel like I can finally rest.”
To contact Sabra Stafford, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 634-9141 ext. 2002.