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Trial Begins in Slaying of Teen Athlete

Times Staff Writer

Murder defendant Marcus Moralez shot a Rio Mesa High School football player to elevate his status in an El Rio gang and to make a name for himself in the largely Latino community, a Ventura County prosecutor told jurors Monday.

“The defendant is a liar and a thug -- he is a cowardly punk who killed an innocent kid,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Susan Aramesh said during opening statements in the trial stemming from the death of 17-year-old Frank Miramontez.

“His goal ... is to be violent, to wreak terror in his community,” Aramesh said. “I will prove to you that this man killed Frank Miramontez and that he did it for no other reason than to gain respect and status.”

But defense attorney Willard Wiksell told jurors that Moralez was not present when the shooting took place and that prosecutors have built their case on the “bought and paid-for testimony” of other gang members shielded from prosecution in the case.

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“He was home when the shots were fired,” Wiksell said of his client. “I will agree that Mr. Miramontez was senselessly and tragically killed ... but at the same time I say Mr. Moralez did not commit that crime, he didn’t pull the trigger.”

Moralez, 22, is charged with murder, street terrorism and carrying a loaded firearm in connection with the fatal shooting two days before Christmas 1999. He has pleaded not guilty to all counts.

Miramontez was shot four times in the head while he sat in his car on a street in El Rio, an unincorporated enclave north of Oxnard, just blocks from his home.

When Miramontez slumped forward, his foot pressed the accelerator and caused the engine to rev, overheat and catch fire. Firefighters found his charred remains in the driver’s seat of the vehicle.

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Aramesh said the shooting rocked the blue-collar community, evidenced by a memorial erected days after his death that is still standing.

“Frank Miramontez by all accounts was a good kid -- he wasn’t involved in gangs, he wasn’t involved in drugs,” Aramesh said.

“He was the type of son every mother dreamed of.”

Aramesh told jurors they would learn much about gang culture and that Moralez -- who was known as “Wacky” -- was a loyal gang member known for his quick and impulsive actions.

She played a snippet of a taped jailhouse conservation in which Moralez tells another inmate that the slaying resulted from a robbery gone wrong.

And Aramesh told jurors they would hear from several witnesses, including two El Rio gang members who were in the car at the time of the shooting. Both have been given money to relocate themselves and their families out of fear of retaliation.

She showed a photograph of a cinderblock wall in El Rio on which the names of several witnesses had been spray-painted next to the word “snitch.”

“I can tell you one thing ... no one wants to testify in this case, no one wants to be a rat,” Aramesh said. “Because being a rat in that community is just about the worst thing you can do.”

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Wiksell told jurors there is no physical evidence linking Moralez to the crime. There was no gun found on him, no blood on his clothes and no gunpowder residue on his hands, the defense attorney said.

And Wiksell reminded the jurors that the only witnesses were two gang members who were promised they wouldn’t be prosecuted in exchange for their testimony.

“Calling him a thug and a punk, that’s not evidence,” said Wiksell, telling jurors that Moralez was home with his family the night of the shooting making tamales.

“If you critically look at this,” he said, “there’s a lot more to it.”


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