A jury found four people guilty Monday in the death of an 18-year-old Ventura man who was bludgeoned with a bat outside his apartment after he tried to defend neighbors under attack by a street gang.
Benny Lopez, who prosecutors said delivered the fatal blows to William Zara, was convicted of first-degree murder and conspiracy. Frank Olvera, his wife Rosana and Terry Paul Schell were found guilty of second-degree murder.
Three defendants also were convicted on conspiracy charges; jurors deadlocked on that count for Frank Olvera.
Prosecutors said the verdicts were an important victory over gang members who infiltrate neighborhoods and try to run them through intimidation.
"I think that this jury sent a very important message to [gang members] that this community is not going to tolerate the lies and deceit that they caused," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Maeve Fox, who called the trial a "gang case from the beginning to the end."
The Ventura County Superior Court jury also returned guilty verdicts on charges of street terrorism against Lopez and Schell.
Fox said the purpose of the 1998 California Street Terrorism Act was to eradicate criminal street gangs. In this case, she said, it gave prosecutors another tool with which to go after "the biggest bunch of bullies in Ventura."
Defense attorney Victor Salas, who represented Benny Lopez, said it was the jury's perception of the defendants as gang members, and not as people, that led to the verdicts.
"But that's the way it's done in Ventura County," Salas said. Prosecutors "wrap you in with a bunch of gang stuff, then roll you up in a sweet little ball and throw you away."
Salas added that Zara partly fueled the melee by arming himself with the bat.
"I firmly believe if Mr. Zara hadn't come out with the bat, he would still be alive today," Salas said.
William Zara's father, Sam, said he was grateful for the verdicts.
"But there's not a feeling of comfort," Zara said. " . . . There are a lot of people hurting right now. And it's not just on our side. Their side is hurting as well. I take no joy at this."
Zara said he couldn't help but be moved by the sobbing of the defendants' families.
One man was briefly ejected from the room because he was wearing a T-shirt that read "Snitches--A Dying Breed," but was readmitted after turning the shirt inside-out.
Prosecutors allege that Zara was beaten to death because gang members mistakenly believed he called the police about their party as it raged across the street.
Prosecutors said the gang members who swarmed Zara's apartment on Sept. 26, 1999, were out to prove that there would be a price to pay for tattling to the police.
Authorities later said it was not Zara who made the call.
Zara, a popular stagehand at the Ventura Theater, was struck in the head repeatedly with a bat and a shovel. He died the next day.
Prosecutors allege that Rosana Olvera started the brawl by slapping a friend of Zara.
Zara later tried to defend several friends as they were under attack and armed himself with a bat. But Lopez snatched the bat out of Zara's hands and began beating him, while Schell kicked and punched him and Frank Olvera hit Zara with a shovel, prosecutors said.
The courtroom ran high with emotion before the verdicts were read. Bailiffs and defense attorneys admonished spectators to maintain control when court began and to take any outbursts outside the courtroom.
But as each verdict was announced, sniffles turned to deep sobs from the defendants' friends and families, some of whom threw their arms around one another.
Lawyers for the defendants said they planned to appeal on various grounds, including the fact that jurors were allowed to consider gang affiliation.
"Frank was not a part of the gang," said Charles Cassy, Frank Olvera's attorney.
"But once you have the gang allegations, it's very hard for the jury to ignore."
Defense attorney Nancy Aronson, who represents Schell, said she was dismayed by the verdicts because she did not believe prosecutors proved their case.
"Given the evidence presented, this was truly a miscarriage of justice," Aronson said.
At sentencing, set for July 16, Lopez faces 25 years to life in prison; the others could get 15 years to life. They also face additional years for the street terrorism conviction and for other allegations upheld in court, including committing the crimes in the name of a gang.
Zara's father acknowledged that some positives had come from his son's death, from the creation of scholarships in his name to dialogues about violence in the community. But he added that it would be naive to expect any lessons from the tragedy to be remembered for long.
"Our human nature," he said, "is that we pay attention for a while and forget."