Drove Car After Engineer Was Slain at Taco Shop : Illegal Alien Given 1-Year Sentence in Murder

Times Staff Writer

An illegal alien from Mexico was sentenced Tuesday to one year in jail and three years' probation for being an accessory to the murder of Greg Nakatani, a 23-year-old engineer slain in September outside a Leucadia taco shop.

Despite a plea by prosecutors that Ildefonso Perez Martinez be given the maximum three-year sentence, Vista Superior Court Judge Herbert Hoffman said the facts of the case indicated that he did not merit such stiff punishment.

Under Hoffman's ruling, Martinez will be given 268 days as credit for time served since his arrest, meaning the 25-year-old native of Oaxaca, Mexico, will remain in jail for about 100 more days.

John Jimenez, the deputy public defender who handled Martinez's case, called the judge's decision "a most appropriate and very fair decision."

"He was able to see the pertinent sentencing issues without being blinded by the political and emotional fervor," Jimenez said. "Judge Hoffman understood that just because you have one defendant in court, you cannot and should not punish him unjustly for the actions of another."

Prosecutors said they understand the reasons for the ruling, but feel it is not tough enough.

"We asked for the maximum sentence of three years, which we thought was fair," Deputy Dist. Atty. Tim Casserly said. "We're disappointed."

Nakatani, a mechanical engineer for General Dynamics, was pursuing a master's degree at UC San Diego. He was gunned down Sept. 20 outside Alfonso's Taco Shop on Old Highway 101, not far from his La Costa condominium.

Argued Over Small Dent

Nakatani was shot while quarreling with Martinez and another man over a small dent they had made in the side of his pickup truck, according to witnesses. Abel Yescas Lopez, suspected of being the killer, is still at large and being sought with the help of Mexican authorities in Oaxaca.

The case did not hit the headlines until Nakatani's parents in San Jose charged that the murder investigation had been bungled by the San Diego County district attorney's office and the Sheriff's Department.

Alexander and Jane Nakatani were particularly angry because Martinez was initially released after the district attorney refused to file charges. At the time, district attorney officials complained that detectives had provided "incomplete reports" and "grossly insufficient evidence," making a murder case against the man untenable.

Upset that the man who had driven the getaway car in their son's murder had been set free, the Nakatanis sought help from Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) and Rep. Norman Mineta (D-San Jose) to pressure the supervising deputy district attorney in North County, Philip Walden, to prosecute Martinez.

Parents' Effort Worked

That effort paid off. After the Nakatanis met with Dist. Atty. Edwin Miller in November, Martinez was rearrested on El Camino Real in Encinitas, where he was living in his car, and charged with being an accomplice to the murder.

District attorney's office officials said the case had been bolstered by new evidence, which firmly indicated that Martinez drove the gunman from the taco shop's parking lot after Greg Nakatani was shot.

During the trial, the prosecutor presented two witnesses who testified that Martinez and Yescas had bragged about the killing at a rodeo they attended in Encinitas a day later. Jimenez countered by arguing that Martinez had been forced to help Yescas escape because Yescas threatened him with the weapon after the shooting.

In handing down his ruling Tuesday, Hoffman noted that Martinez had not committed the actual murder. Because of that, Hoffman said, he did not feel that a tougher sentence was justified.

Hoffman also pointed to other mitigating factors, such as the fact that Martinez had no prior criminal record and a psychologist's report indicated he was not a menace to society.

Aside from the jail time and probation, Hoffman ordered Martinez to pay a $200 fine, to never again steal into the country illegally, and to report to his probation officer within three days of reentering the United States.

He also told Martinez that he should be available to help authorities as a witness or in the search for Yescas.

After his release, Martinez probably will be given the option by immigration authorities of voluntarily returning to Mexico or facing deportation, Jimenez said.

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