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Thursday, October 27, 2011

CALIFORNIA - Gustine bar killing trial opens; one defendant takes plea deal

One of two remaining defendants in the 2009 Gustine bar slaying involving members of the Mongols outlaw biker gang has pleaded no contest to being an accessory in the killing.
Albert Aleman was set to stand trial Tuesday with co-defendant Ruben Silva Jr. on murder charges in the killing of bar patron Bill James. Before attorneys launched into opening statements, the 38-year-old Montebello resident decided to accept a deal with the prosecution, pleading no contest to felony accessory after the fact and misdemeanor participation in a criminal street gang.
Next month Aleman will be sentenced by Judge Ronald Hansen to 3½ years in prison. With credit for time served, he could be released in eight to nine months.
Deputy District Attorney David Elgin, prosecutor in the case, said one factor in the plea deal was that although Aleman was believed to be at the scene, he didn't commit the actual stabbing. Aleman and Silva are both full members of the Mongols gang, according to the prosecution.
After Aleman agreed to the terms of the deal, Carol James, the victim's mother, stood up and confronted him. James said she hopes Aleman considers the gravity of his actions, saying she holds him and the other men directly responsible for her son's death.
Wearing a somber expression, Aleman turned to James and listened intently as she spoke. "I am glad you didn't stab him, but you were part of it," James told Aleman. "You took my life the day you went into that bar. I still hold you responsible. God almighty will handle this one."
During the hearing, Hansen granted a request by Aleman to have a week-long pass from the jail to spend time with his family before the Nov. 2 sentencing. Hansen offered a stern warning to Aleman, saying he "promises" to sentence him to six years in prison if he doesn't report back to the jail on the scheduled date.
Michael Fagalde, Aleman's attorney, said the resolution of the case was fair. If Aleman had been found guilty of murder by a jury, he would have faced life in prison. Fagalde said his client was with "people who made some very bad choices," but he didn't participate in the killing. "Having known him for almost a year, I can tell you that he's very troubled about what happened that night," Fagalde said.
In a related move, attorneys also presented opening statements in Silva's trial Tuesday, after Aleman made his deal with the prosecution.
Elgin told the jury Silva was among a group of men who entered the Gustine Club at 431 Fifth St. the night of Nov. 6, 2009. The group of men were in the area because of a Mongols party being held at the Hotel de Oro in nearby Santa Nella. After entering the bar, one of the men yelled out "Mongols motherf---er! Mongols!" James, a bar patron, replied "I don't give a f--- who you are!"
The Mongols approached and attacked James. At the same time, one of the Mongols took a fire extinguisher-sized canister of pepper spray, unleashing the noxious chemical on bar patrons. The fight eventually spilled out into the street, and James was stabbed to death.
More than one witness placed Silva at the scene and identified him as one of the men who stabbed James (the other defendants in the case have since been sentenced). In addition, a grey pickup that Silva had borrowed to drive from Southern California contained several spots of James' blood inside the cab, Elgin said. Gustine police had towed the truck from the Hotel de Oro after the stabbing. Silva showed up at the police station to pick it up, which raised a red flag with law enforcement.
Defense Attorney John Garcia said his client is innocent of the charges and the case lacks evidence. For example, Garcia pointed out that although sheriff's detectives found a folding knife and a hunting knife containing DNA from some of the other Mongols at the bar — and James — there's no DNA from his client on either weapon.
Garcia said testimony from the witnesses in the case is problematic, particularly because some changed their stories more than once. "This man did not kill anyone and did not partake in the killing of anyone," Garcia told jurors.
Silva is charged with murder, participating in a criminal street gang, with an enhancement for use of a knife. If convicted, he faces life in prison.
In the weeks after the stabbing, Merced County sheriff's deputies arrested nine suspects in the case, with help from law enforcement officials in the Bay Area and Southern California. With the exception of Silva, all of the other defendants have taken plea deals or had the charges dropped. Richard Naudin, Mark Oseguera and Brandon Carvalho pleaded earlier this year to voluntary manslaughter charges and were sentenced to terms ranging from three to eight years in prison.
Managing Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or
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