A judge ordered a trial for three defendants accused of murder in last year’s July 4 shooting death of 3-year-old Jorge Azios III on Loucreta Drive, but he didn’t exactly send the case out Friday with a ringing endorsement.
Instead, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Jack Sapunor said it was pretty clear to him that questions remain “not resolved” about the credibility of the key witness against defendants Gabriel Quintero, now 21, Eric Minjares, 19, and Marcus Weber, 18.
At the conclusion of the preliminary hearing, the defense lawyers for the three suggested they will launch an all-out attack on the truthfulness of the witness, identified in court as another young man from unincorporated southeast Sacramento, Anthony Canales, whom they think would make a better suspect than any of their clients.
“They should have charged Canales with the case,” attorney Donald Masuda, who is representing Weber, said in an interview afterward.
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Detectives Paul Belli and Tony Turnbull were the only witnesses to testify at the Friday hearing that took less than two hours to complete.
They quoted Canales as telling them in two interviews after the fatal shooting that he met up with the three defendants beforehand at a party the night of the killing. Canales said he lent them his white Ford Expedition to go buy some marijuana, according to the detectives. They said Canales told them that when the three got back to the party, Minjares and Weber flashed .45 and .40 caliber handguns. They were the same caliber as the casings found at both the shooting site near the intersection of Loucreta and Palmer House drives as well as inside Canales’ car.
The detectives said Canales reported that when the three returned to the party, Minjares and Quintero described to a group of friends how they had just shot up a burgundy Ford Expedition a few minutes earlier that they said belonged to a man they identified as “B.G.,” short for “Baby George,” the street name of Jorge Azios’ father, Jorge Azios Jr.
Under questioning from the defense lawyers, Belli testified that Canales himself had been a shooting victim about a year before last year’s killing – giving the witness a serious motive to get some revenge on “B.G.”
Canales’ girlfriend told detectives the witness thought his shooter – who was never arrested – drove a burgundy Ford Expedition much like the one Jorge Azios’ dad was driving. The detectives also said they did not know of any motive the three defendants would have to shoot at Azios Jr.’s car, and that they had information that Minjares was actually a family friend.
Defense attorney John Duree, who is representing Quintero, said the case “is all about the credibility of Anthony Canales.”
“For some reason, they are accepting his word as gospel,” Duree said. “They’ve got not one scratch of evidence against any of these three defendants other than Canales’ statements.”
Michael Bowman, the lawyer for Minjares, said: “It appears the DA’s Office has made a decision that it’s our clients, and they’re not going to let the facts get in the way.”
Deputy District Attorney Jeff Hightower declined to comment after the hearing.
In his testimony, Belli said Jorge Azios Jr., 23, told him in an interview that he and his son had stopped at a nearby Taco Bell after attending a Fourth of July party and were heading home along Loucreta Drive when he heard a vehicle pull up behind him. Then came the gunshots that ran up the backside of the vehicle. Azios said he sped north on Palmer House Drive before stopping to check on his son.
“He explained his son popped up and told him he was having trouble breathing, and ‘It hurts,’” Belli testified.
Azios rushed his son to Kaiser Permanente South Sacramento, where he was pronounced dead shortly after 11 p.m.
Detetctive Turnbull testified about the statements Canales gave to investigators. According to Turnbull, the witness said he went out for his Fourth of July evening with Weber, one of the three defendants, to a party in a rural area a couple of miles east off Florin Road.
At the party, a purported member of the Oak Park Norteños asked Canales, who associated with the Franklin Boys gang, if the three defendants could use his car to go buy some marijuana.
“He did not want that to happen,” Turnbull said. “His reasoning was they were too young to drive.” Even though he didn’t want to lend them the car, Canales said he felt “outnumbered and a little bit intimidated” by the other gang set.
Canales, according to Turnbull, told the detectives the three defendants were gone for 30 to 45 minutes and that when they returned, he saw Minjares and Weber with the pistols.
“He stated that after they exited the car, they got in a circle of five or six people ... and that he heard a conversation that they ‘got on B.G.,’” Turnbull testified. Canales could not say exactly who made the remarks, Turnbull testified, but that he also heard somebody describe how they pulled behind the car at Palmer House Drive and how they “shot up the back of the car and described the back window shattering.”
The detectives said they were never able to find any other witnesses to corroborate anything that Canales said. His description of how the shooting took place, however, corresponds to where the shell casings were found. Canales’ phone records also similarly track where he said he had been on the night of the shooting, according to the detectives.