Two minors fought back tears during an emotional court hearing in downtown Los Angeles as they and two adults faced capital murder charges in the beating death of a USC graduate student.
Emotions ran high at Tuesday's hearing as relatives of the group of four, age 19 to 16, sat in the audience a row way from the friends of deceased student Xinran Ji.
The family of one of the defendants, 18-year-old Andrew Garcia, repeatedly told reporters that he is innocent and had left home that day to go to the beach
Garcia -- along with Jonathan DelCarmen, 19; Alberto Ochoa, 17; and Alejandra Guerrero, 16 -- each face one count of murder in connection with Ji's death.
The four also face a special allegation that the death occurred during an attempted robbery. The juvenile suspects will be tried in adult court. It is The Times' policy not to publish the names of juvenile suspects unless they are charged as adults.
A criminal complaint alleges Garcia, Ochoa and Guerrero used a bat and a wrench in last Thursday's attack. Sources told The Times that the student may have fled during an initial attack but was assaulted a second time.
Dressed in an orange shirt and pants, Ochoa fought back tears during the proceeding. Guerrero was similarly dressed and bowed her head, trying to hide her face under her hair.
Both were handcuffed and accompanied by probation officers.
All the defendants agreed to delay their arraignment until Aug. 12. Superior Court Judge Renee Korn denied bail for the defendants after the prosecutor noted it was a special circumstance murder case.
Rosalie Garcia, Andrew Garcia’s mother, mouthed “I love you” to her son from her fifth-row seat surrounded by her family. She clasped her hands tightly almost as in prayer.
"I love you, Andrew!" yelled a relative as the court session drew to a close.
Walking away, Garcia replied, "I love you guys."
Rosalie Garcia said tearfully after the arraignment that her son "is a good boy."
"He had no intentions of this happening," she said. "His friend picked him up after dinner. He was going to the beach."
Prosecutors have yet to decide whether to seek the death penalty against Garcia and DelCarmen. Ochoa and Guerrero are not subject to the death penalty because of their age, prosecutors said, and instead would face life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted.
Under California law, prosecutors have discretion in certain crimes, including murder, to charge a minor as an adult. The courts, however, have ruled that minors are not subject to the death penalty.
Ji, an engineering student from China, was attacked about 12:45 a.m. Thursday as he walked home from a study group, authorities said. Despite a head injury, he managed to make his way back to his apartment a few blocks away, where a roommate later discovered his body.
Prosecutors allege that after attacking Ji, the suspects drove to Dockweiler Beach, where Ochoa, Garcia and Guerrero approached a man and woman. The three robbed the woman, prosecutors allege, but the man managed to escape and flag down police officers patrolling the area.
The complaint alleges that Garcia, Guerrero and Ochoa again used a bat at Dockweiler Beach and that Guerrero and Ochoa also used a knife. The three were charged with second-degree robbery, attempted second-degree robbery and assault with a deadly weapon in connection with that incident, prosecutors said.
Detectives believe that a 14-year-old girl who was detained in connection with the Dockweiler Beach robbery also was involved in Ji's assault "in some manner," LAPD Cmdr. Andrew Smith said Monday, though the "detail and depth" of her alleged involvement was not clear.
The two girls were detained by the officers who were flagged down by the victims at Dockweiler Beach, and detectives from the department’s Pacific Division began investigating, according to an LAPD source familiar with the investigation.
The three other suspects were taken into custody later that day and a vehicle believed to be connected to the crime was impounded. Meanwhile, detectives with the Criminal Gang Homicide Division who were investigating Ji’s assault issued a department-wide bulletin for a vehicle sought in their case, the source said.
The officers who impounded the vehicle in connection with the Dockweiler Beach robbery realized that it matched that description, helping investigators link the two crimes. Police said there were no indications the suspects were gang members or that the attack on Ji was racially motivated.
Detectives also said they believe that the suspects may have committed other crimes last Wednesday night or early Thursday, Smith said. Law enforcement sources said security cameras and a license plate reader helped identify the suspects in Ji's death.
USC Public Safety Chief John Thomas said the suspects were apparently not aware of the network of technology -- including 150 cameras -- scattered around campus. Both the university and Los Angeles police amplified their security resources at the South L.A. campus and surrounding neighborhood after two Chinese graduate students were shot and killed in a botched robbery in 2012.
Six months later, a man opened fire outside an on-campus Halloween party, injuring four people, though none of those victims were students.