Three Plead Guilty in Murder-for-Hire Plot : Crime: They are expected to testify against alleged mastermind of scheme that cost car salesman his life.
Three of seven men accused in a murder-for-hire scheme pleaded guilty Thursday to federal felony charges in connection with the 1988 execution-style slaying of car salesman Sal Ruscitti.
The three, a Rowland Heights father and son and a Baldwin Park man, are expected to testify against the alleged leader of the conspiracy, William Wayne (Will) Nix, according to a plea agreement signed Thursday.
Nix, the former general manager of what used to be called Center City Ford, is due to go to trial sometime next year on murder charges in state court. He hired the six others to kill Ruscitti, prosecutors claim, because Ruscitti was one of the leaders of a 1986 lawsuit claiming that dealership sales staff had been systematically bilked out of commissions.
“This locks in this end of it,” Ruscitti’s son, Frank Ruscitti, said after a hearing before Senior U.S. District Judge Leland C. Nielsen. “It’s over. Now we go after the main guy.”
He added that the family was “pleased” after Thursday’s hearing but not yet satisfied. “Happy might be a public hanging at Jack Murphy Stadium,” Frank Ruscitti said.
The elder Ruscitti was shot four times in the chest Sept. 17, 1988, after he was beckoned by his wife, Barbara Ruscitti, to see two men who called for him at the front door of their Leucadia home.
Ruscitti had been active in the civil lawsuit, which represents more than 300 people who had sold cars for Center City Ford and, later, Kearny Mesa Ford after the dealership changed ownership and name. Prosecutors allege that Nix wanted Ruscitti killed to halt the civil lawsuit. The case is still pending in San Diego Superior Court.
At the hearing Thursday, Paul A. Gonzalez Sr., 42, of Rowland Heights, pleaded guilty to one count of murder for hire and another of using a firearm during a crime of violence.
For the murder-for-hire charge, federal sentencing guidelines demand that Gonzalez be put in prison for life without parole, unless prosecutors ask the sentencing judge for leniency because Gonzalez offers “substantial assistance” as a witness in a related case, Assistant U.S. Atty. Larry A. Burns said. Sentencing was tentatively set for June 15.
Burns, the prosecutor in the case, declined to comment on the scope of Gonzalez’ future testimony. But, according to an affidavit that has been on file for months at San Diego’s federal court, Gonzalez has been in federal custody since May and has been cooperating with authorities in piecing together the case.
Gonzalez remains without bail in the federal Metropolitan Correctional Center in downtown San Diego, Burns said.
Like Gonzalez, Albert Vargas, 27, of Baldwin Park, also pleaded guilty to a sole count of murder for hire and another of using a firearm during a crime of violence. He remains without bail at the MCC.
Paul A. Gonzalez Jr., 21, of Rowland Heights, pleaded guilty Thursday to a sole count of conspiring to commit murder for hire. He remains free on $100,000 bail but faces up to five years in federal prison, Burns said.
Others charged with participating in the killing are Jose Miranda of Mexico; Rock Timothy Holton, 37, of Upland; and Steven Vernon Gates, 38, of Upland.
Miranda, known as “Tonto,” remains at large. Nix, Holton and Gates are in County Jail in downtown San Diego, held without bail. A date for a trial has not yet been set.
Though the case originally was filed against all seven men in federal court, it was split last week when charges against Nix, Holton, Gates and Miranda were transferred to state court, where murder charges are more commonly prosecuted. The case against Gonzalez, his son and Vargas remained in federal court because of the impending plea bargain.
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