Attorneys for the San Francisco couple are calling it "every parent's nightmare."
Barry Laprell Gilton and Lupe Mercado watched, dismayed and helpless, as their 17-year-old daughter was lured away from home by a known Compton gang member, who became her pimp.
The couple tried to persuade the teenager to break ties with 22-year-old Calvin Sneed. They sought help from law enforcement -- to no avail -- and later added the girl to several missing and exploited children registries, according to their lawyers. And that, their lawyers said, was where they left it.
Prosecutors contend they did far more.
In a criminal complaint that has stunned the couple's friends and relatives, the San Francisco district attorney's office said Gilton and Mercado plotted to kill Sneed. One attempt on the night of May 27, along Vineland Avenue in North Hollywood, failed. A second, not far from the couple's home near San Francisco's Candlestick Park, succeeded.
Sneed, officials said, was gunned down in his car on June 4 at 2 a.m. by Gilton, who allegedly fired a .40-caliber weapon from a silver Mercedes- Benz SUV.
"We have substantial evidence to believe that this was a premeditated event," Dist. Atty. George Gascon said Thursday.
Gascon said that as a father, he understood "the frustration that the parents must have felt.... But taking the law into your own hands is not an acceptable solution."
Said Eric Safire, who represents Gilton: "There is some circumstantial evidence, and there's certainly a motive, but there is no direct evidence that we've been made aware of."
Gilton, 38, and Mercado, 37 -- who began dating in middle school and have three younger boys -- were deeply concerned for their daughter, who left home about a year ago, Safire said. They had discovered that she was appearing in escort ads, and that she seemed to be working for Sneed.
"They ... had come to learn that she was being unduly influenced by this fellow," Safire said. "They encouraged her to stay away, and tried to get help to encourage him to stay away."
Mercado's lawyer, Tony Tamburello, said Thursday that law enforcement officials "jumped to the conclusion that because [the couple had] a motive, that they're the people who are responsible."
"They're wrong. And they've been wrong before."
Gilton and Mercado, who are scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday, are being held on $2-million bail apiece. Each faces one count of murder, one count of discharging a firearm into an occupied motor vehicle and one count of conspiracy to commit murder, the complaint says. Gilton also faces a charge of possessing a firearm as a felon due to a 1995 drug-related conviction.
Prosecutors contend the couple tracked Sneed to North Hollywood on May 27 and fired a 9-millimeter handgun at him as he sat in a car, "striking him."
Los Angeles Police Det. Steve Castro confirmed the shooting, but said Sneed's injuries resulted from shattered glass. According to a police report, there was no surveillance video available of the scene where an "unidentified suspect approached on foot" and fired nine shots.
Sneed's girlfriend drove him to the hospital, where he refused to cooperate with authorities, the report said.
The 17-year-old returned with Sneed to the Bay Area on the weekend of June 2 to visit an ailing relative, Safire said. She argued with her parents, who tried unsuccessfully to get Sneed to leave.
In the early hours that Monday, Safire said, Sneed was "out doing his business in a foreign gang area. We do know that he was involved in gang activity and that he was up here on his own. It's not unlikely that he would be exposed to violence."
But according to the complaint, Mercado phoned Gilton -- who was in the Mercedes SUV -- at 1:57 a.m. Four minutes later, authorities said, Gilton fired the fatal shots.
The allegations have come as a shock to those close to the couple.
An aunt who emerged from Gilton's grandparents' home in San Francisco's Western Addition on Thursday said she believed they had been betrayed.
"The parents went to ask the authorities for help, and [the authorities] are flipping it," Patricia Ann Gilton, 60, said. Barry Gilton and Mercado were "the victims, and now they're the suspects."
Gilton said her nephew is "a good kid. He worked, took care of his family."
Dean Maye said he had known Gilton since he was a guard on the Mission High School basketball team. Maye later coached him in the San Francisco Bay Area Pro-Am Summer Basketball League. Gilton since has volunteered countless hours to the league, helping Maye scout prospects and working with local college players, while also coaching at the nearby Boys and Girls Club.
"He's a dedicated father, a great father," Maye said. "We're shocked about this. I know the whole family. I can't picture it. I don't believe it."
Times staff writer Maura Dolan contributed to this report.