June 16, 2006

A Superior Court jury has convicted two men, described as founders of a Logan Heights tagging gang, of murdering a member of a rival crew nearly four years ago.

Pedro Zepeda-Garcia, 23, and Geraldo Ojito, 22, were found guilty Wednesday of first-degree murder in the shooting death of Manuel Barajas, 20, the afternoon of Aug. 11, 2002.

The jury acquitted Ojito's older brother, Mario, in the slaying. Mario Ojito was released to immigration authorities yesterday.
Zepeda-Garcia and Geraldo Ojito are scheduled to be sentenced Aug. 17. Each could be sent to prison for life.

During the eight-week trial, prosecutors argued that Zepeda-Garcia fought with Barajas at a Logan Heights market and suffered a bruise to the right side of his head. Having lost the fight, Zepeda-Garcia recruited others – including the Ojito brothers – to retaliate against Barajas.

When they caught up with Barajas, Zepeda-Garcia pulled a gun from a backpack and fired, hitting him in the back, thigh and groin area, prosecutors said.

“The goal that day was to kill him,” said prosecutor Michael Runyon during his closing arguments. “The goal that day was to take revenge because of the fight he got into with Mr. Zepeda-Garcia.”

Runyon argued that the Ojito brothers aided the attack on Barajas and therefore were culpable of his murder. As a member of an older Logan Heights gang, 27-year-old Mario Ojito acted as the “elder statesman” of the group that hunted down Barajas, the prosecutor said.

Runyon said the group that Geraldo Ojito and Zepeda-Garcia started as a tagging, or graffiti, crew had become a full-blown criminal street gang by 2002, and Barajas' murder was an attempt by its founders to “save face.”

Defense lawyers said yesterday that the jury apparently didn't agree with the theory that the murder was a gang crime.

“They thought it was more personal than it was gang-related,” said defense attorney Brian White, who spoke to jurors after the verdicts.

He said his client, Mario Ojito, has “a new lease of life” now that he has been acquitted. Mario Ojito reacted emotionally after he heard the verdicts yesterday. He raised his hand a few times to wipe tears from his eyes and shook his brother's hand.

White said Mario Ojito has been in and out of custody since he was 14 years old and had only been out of prison five weeks when he was arrested in connection with this case.

“He's going to have to work to get his life back together,” White said.

Meanwhile, Geraldo Ojito faces the likelihood of spending the rest of his life in prison.

In a separate case, Geraldo Ojito was convicted in January 2004 of murdering 14-year-old Larson Tufi and 16-year-old Jose Alegria on March 1, 2002, during a confrontation along Logan Avenue near Euclid Avenue in Lincoln Park.

Ojito also was found guilty of attempting to kill four rival gang members on Sept. 13, 2002, in a shooting on Interstate 805 that left a teenager blind in one eye. Ojito fired shots as he and other gang members chased a carthrough National City during rush hour, according to testimony.

He is awaiting sentencing in those cases.