June 10, 2006

EL CAJON – A 22-year-old Santee man was convicted yesterday of murdering a rival El Cajon gang member in a case in which a jury deadlocked on whether his companion also was guilty.

Ruben Gomez was found guilty for his role in the March 6, 2004, slaying of Daniel Menchaca in what prosecutors said was an ambush on Millar Avenue. Gomez also was convicted of possessing a loaded firearm.

Menchaca was shot 10 times in the back when four men jumped from behind two parked trucks and confronted him and a 19-year-old friend, according to trial testimony. The woman was unharmed.
Judge Allan J. Preckel ordered Gomez held in jail without bail pending a July 10 hearing at which he will be sentenced. Gomez faces a maximum penalty of 28 years to life, prosecutor James Romo said.

A mistrial was declared Thursday when a separate jury deadlocked after deliberating for a week on similar charges against Gomez's co-defendant, Jesus Manuel Carrasco, 22, of La Mesa. The two men were tried together before separate juries.

Carrasco also is charged with the April 15, 2004, slaying of Andres Lopez in the parking lot of a North Mollison Avenue apartment complex in what prosecutors said was a similarly motivated attack: to hunt down and kill gang rivals. Preckel scheduled a hearing for Monday, when a new trial date will likely be set for Carrasco, Romo said.

Neither Gomez nor Carrasco was the shooter in either slaying, but Romo argued that they were on “gang banging” forays with other gang members, looking for rivals to attack.

Under California law, that makes them as guilty as if they pulled the trigger, Romo said.

Gomez, who owns his own landscaping business, had insisted through defense attorney John Burke that he had severed his ties with his former gang and was simply visiting gang members who were still his friends the night of the Menchaca shooting.

The accused gunmen – Marco Antonio Moedano in the case of Menchaca, and Benjamin Eric Norton with Lopez – are scheduled to be tried in September. Both face the death penalty if convicted, prosecutor Romo said.

After the court hearing yesterday, jurors told Romo that the deciding factor in convicting Gomez was a secretly recorded conversation between Gomez and another gang member in which Gomez talked about the Menchaca shooting.

The other gang member, William Marquez, agreed to wear a transmitter for police to record conversations he had with Gomez and Carrasco, Romo said. Marquez, who testified during the three-week trial, was given immunity from prosecution for his cooperation and placed in witness protection.

Romo said the Carrasco jury apparently did not find the tape-recorded conversations with Marquez as convincing as did the Gomez jury.

At least some members of the Carrasco jury “didn't put much, if any, weight on his own (Gomez's) statements,” Romo said