2 Convicted in Attack With Paint-Roller Rod : Courts: They could get 15 years to life in prison. Steve Woods, 17, died in gang incident on San Clemente beach.
Two youths were convicted of second-degree murder and nine other felonies Thursday in a gang attack at a San Clemente beach last year that ended with the death of 17-year-old Steve Woods after a paint-roller rod pierced his skull.
The case ignited public outrage over gang violence in Orange County and enraged some Latino leaders who complained that prosecutors had overcharged the Latino defendants in the case because the victim was white.
Prosecutors could not prove that Hector Penuelas, 17, and Julio Perez Bonilla, 18, hurled the paint-roller rod that fatally wounded the San Clemente High School senior.
But Orange County Superior Court Judge Everett W. Dickey said the young men are as guilty as the actual killer because they were acting as a “gang operation” when they joined their buddies in throwing pipes, bottles, wood chunks, paint rollers and other objects at the victim and his friends.
The judge held up a paint roller as he explained his verdicts.
“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure these things are going to be dangerous to a human being in a close quarters battle,” he said.
Dickey rejected defense contentions that Penuelas and Bonilla had acted out of fear when they confronted Woods and his friends.
“This case is not about an accident,” he said at the close of the non-jury trial. “This case is not about self-defense.”
“They created the circumstance, in other words, under which they now claim they were acting in fear,” the judge said, adding that Woods and his friends never threatened or committed an act of violence that evening. “The defendants can’t start the trouble and then claim because of the victim’s reaction they were provoked.”
Woods was in the passenger seat of a friend’s Chevrolet Suburban when a paint-roller rod crashed through the window and lodged in his skull Oct 15. He died 25 days later, never regaining consciousness.
On Thursday, Kathy Woods, the dead teen’s mother, said she was pleased with the verdicts and wants her son’s killers sent to prison for as long as possible.
“I feel sorry for the parents (of the defendants), but their sons are alive,” she said. “I feel my son lost at least 60 years of his life. I would like to see at least 20 of theirs.”
Bonilla and Penuelas, both of San Clemente, were among six defendants charged in Woods’ killing.
The judge’s ruling means they each could face up to 15 years to life in prison on the second-degree murder convictions, plus additional time on felony charges of conspiracy, assault and throwing objects at a moving vehicle, and an enhancement of belonging or associating with a gang.
Bonilla was additionally convicted of misdemeanor assault stemming from an earlier fight with Steve Breckenridge, a friend of Woods.
During trial, Bonilla and Penuelas contended that they acted in self-defense because they believed Woods and his friends were driving toward them and planning an attack in revenge for the earlier dispute between Bonilla and Breckenridge.
But the judge said the defendants provoked the attack and noted that the victims had no choice but to drive past the attackers--who were partying near the park’s only exit--and were effectively “trapped” by them.
Defense attorneys asked Dickey to convict their clients of involuntary manslaughter, arguing that the killing was a freak accident and their clients never intended to hurt anyone. “I’m not really surprised,” attorney Dennis McNerney, who represents Penuelas, said of the verdict. He said he had no second thoughts about asking the judge--rather than a jury--to decide the case. “Mr. Penuelas is very upset,” he said.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Gary Paer said the verdict should sent a strong message to gang members.
“If you do something like this, you’re going to be charged with murder,” he said.
The attack was sparked when Bonilla, a gang member, was hanging out with a large group of friends near one end of the parking lot in Calafia Beach County Park, while Woods and his friends were partying elsewhere in the park. Bonilla and a friend pushed and punched Breckenridge.
Breckenridge testified he merely asked whether Bonilla and his friends knew of any parties in San Juan Capistrano later that evening, leading prosecutors to theorize the gang members were set off by the mention of “San Juan,” because their rivals live in that area.
But Bonilla testified he and another friend pushed and punched Breckenridge because Breckenridge had made an obscene gesture at Bonilla a few days earlier.
Dickey said it really didn’t matter what sparked the fight.
“Notwithstanding what the credo may be for a gang, that is not the law,” Dickey said, explaining that a person’s use of obscene language or shouting of a rival gang’s name does not give someone else the right to attack.
Dickey said he does not believe the defendants went to the park looking to kill someone. He said the incident was especially tragic because if not for the confrontation involving Breckenridge, “chances are this whole thing would never have happened.”
Dickey said the defendants were clearly gang members or associates who were acting as a “gang operation” when they willingly participated in a conspiracy to attack the defendants.
“Each member of the conspiracy who knowingly enters into it is liable for the reasonable and probable outcome of any crime,” he said, holding up a paint-roller rod and noting that its shape clearly made it a dangerous weapon.
The attack sent shock waves through San Clemente, a community known for its pristine beaches and as home to the Western White House during Richard Nixon’s presidency. Outraged residents demanded tough treatment for the defendants, and held rallies and protests to complain about crimes and gangs.
But the tragedy also exposed racial divisions in neighborhoods beside the beaches. A group of Latino activists complained that race was behind the murder charges in the case, and alleged that the killing was being used to unfairly stereotype Latinos as gang members and criminals.
Dickey set sentencing for Jan. 13. The defendants were juveniles at the time of the attack, but were tried as adults because of the serious nature of the charges.
A third defendant has pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and gang involvement charges, while three remaining defendants are awaiting trial.
Times staff writer Anna Cekola contributed to this report.
San Clemente Spearing Case
* Background: On Oct. 15, 1993, Steve Woods, 17, and several friends had been drinking beer at Calafia Beach County Park. Julio Bonilla, 18, Hector Penuelas, 17, and their friends were doing the same, partying near the only road leading from the parking lot. Woods’ friends said they were trying to avoid trouble and were leaving after one of their group was pushed and punched by Bonilla and a friend. The caravan of cars was forced to drive past the defendants, however, and Bonilla and Penuelas testified that they began hurling bottles, wood blocks and other objects to protect themselves because they believed the other group was returning for revenge. One of the objects thrown--a paint-roller rod--speared Woods through the head.
* The charges: Penuelas, 17, and Bonilla, 18, were charged with second-degree murder following the confrontation that resulted in Woods’ death 25 days later.
* The defense: Attorneys for Penuelas and Bonilla contended that the death was an accident and say their clients acted in self-defense. They asked that their clients be found guilty of the lesser offense of involuntary manslaughter.
* The verdicts: Orange County Superior Court Judge Everett W. Dickey, presiding in a non-jury trial, found Penuelas and Bonilla guilty Thursday of second-degree murder. The defendants also were convicted of nine other felony counts, including conspiracy, assault, hurling objects at a moving vehicle and an enhancement charge that they belonged to a street gang. In addition, Bonilla was convicted of misdemeanor assault.
* Possible sentences: Penuelas and Bonilla were juveniles at the time of the attack, but were tried as adults. Each faces up to 15 years to life in prison for the murder conviction and possible additional time for the other counts. The judge has the discretion to sentence them as juveniles, which would mean release from the California Youth Authority when they turn 25, at the latest.
* What’s next: Bonilla and Penuelas will be sentenced Jan 13. A third defendant, Arturo Villalobos, 19, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and faces up to 14 years in prison when he is sentenced Sept. 30. Three other defendants--Rogelio Solis, 18; Juan Enriquez Alcocer, 20; and Saul Penuelas, 18, Hector Penuelas’ older brother--are awaiting trial.
Source: Times reports; Researched by RENE LYNCH / Los Angeles Times