Gang affiliations played sharply into the fatal New Year’s Eve 2012 shootings in Old Sacramento, when two men used a spilled drink to enhance their reputations and generate public fear on one of the biggest stages in town, the prosecutor in the case argued Monday.
Sacramento Superior Court Judge Ernest W. Sawtelle concurred that there was enough evidence to support Deputy District Attorney Anthony Ortiz’s view of the Dec. 31, 2012, killings at the Sports Corner Café. As a result, Sawtelle ordered Carlito Steve Montoya and Charles Wesley Fowler-Scholz to each stand trial on two counts of murder.
The judge also ordered Fowler-Scholz’s wife, Amber Scholz, who is not named in any of the gang allegations, to stand trial for aiding and abetting an assault with a deadly weapon.
“This is essentially and exactly what gangs do,” Ortiz argued at the end of the preliminary hearing for the three defendants. “They prey on innocent people and they try to intimidate the public, and this is exactly what they did on New Year’s Eve.”
Thousands of people had gathered in Old Town and were bustling between two riverfront fireworks shows when the shooting broke out in the fairly busy bar at Second and K streets. When the 9:44 p.m. gunfire subsided, Daniel Ferrier, a Sports Corner Café security employee and a 36-year-old veteran of the Iraq War, was dead. Also slain was Gilbert Cordova, 35, a father of three. Two other people were injured.
Only one witness testified Monday in the second and final day of the preliminary hearing that had been delayed for two weeks during the holidays, and it was the word of Sacramento police Detective John Sample that Ortiz used to argue the gang aspect of the case.
Defense attorneys hotly disputed that their clients were gang members and whether gang affiliations factored into the shootings. Investigators say the violence erupted when Cordova spilled a drink on Amber Scholz, 36, who complained about it to her husband, who then swung a beer bottle at Cordova’s head. Montoya started shooting in the melee that followed, according to police and prosecutors.
Testifying as a gang expert, Sample identified Fowler-Scholz, 35, as a member of Varrio Diamond, a subset of the larger Norteño street gang that is prevalent in some Latino neighborhoods in Northern California. In prison on a 1995 robbery conviction, Fowler-Scholz joined with the Northern Structure prison gang, Sample testified. The detective said Fowler-Scholz sports gang tattoos on his stomach and back, took up a girlfriend who belongs to a gang, and wears clothing and hairstyles that are associated with gangs.
Fowler-Scholz had been questioned in a gun possession case just four months before the Old Sac shooting, Sample said, although no charges were filed against him.
Montoya, 23, accompanied his two co-defendants to the Old Sac bar that night. He has admitted to law enforcement that he is a member of the Murder Dubs gang in Oakland, Sample testified. The detective said Montoya was involved in a 2006 gang fight in Oakland and that on another occasion he was with a relative in Oakland who was targeted in a gang shooting.
Sample testified that the shooting at the Sports Corner Café – captured on video and played on the first day of the preliminary hearing Dec. 19 – benefited the gangs to which Montoya and Fowler-Scholz reportedly belong.
“It is an enhancement for their reputations of violence and fear,” Sample said. “Nothing is more fearful than the crime of murder in a public setting. They’re walking ambassadors for their gang. It makes them more feared, with their rivals and in the community. The more eyes that see it, that they’re capable of this kind of violence, the more it spreads the fear” about their reputations.
Daniel A. Nicholson, the lawyer who is representing Fowler-Scholz, said in his questioning of Sample that his client had dropped out of the prison gang. Sample disagreed, saying the reports he has read show that state prison officials still identify Fowler-Scholz as a member of the Northern Structure gang, an affiliate of the more prominent Nuestra Familia.
Montoya’s lawyer, Karol Martin Repkow, said in her questioning that her client has denied being a gang member. She said he was not wearing any gang colors the night of the shooting, and she questioned whether Montoya or Fowler-Scholz flashed any signs or made any reference that evening to gangs.
Sample testified that one witness in the bar told investigators Fowler-Scholz had been seen before the shooting lifting up his shirt to display a tattoo on his stomach, “to show his gang affiliation.”
In his argument on Monday, Nicholson said, “This was a bar fight. My client engaged the deceased, Mr. Cordova, and Mr. Cordova did not back down.”
Nicholson said Fowler-Scholz didn’t know Montoya had a gun.
“There was no way for him to know that this person over there – Montoya – was going to kill people,” Nicholson said.
Repkow argued only that there was insufficient evidence to establish that Montoya belonged to a gang or that he shot and killed anybody to enhance his gang reputation. She said after the first day of the hearing in December that Montoya was in an alcoholic blackout at the time of the shooting.
Amber Scholz’s attorney, Assistant Public Defender Amy Rogers, took issue with the prosecution theory that her client’s complaint about the spilled drink set the killings into motion. Rogers said there was no evidence Amber Scholz told her husband to do anything.
“As soon as it turned physical, she turned and walked away,” Rogers said.
Scholz hadn’t lived with her husband in the four years before the killings, according to the attorney. Scholz also had twice been the subject of domestic violence at his hands, Rogers said.
In holding the three to stand trial for the shooting, Judge Sawtelle said that in his viewing of the videotape, “you can see how the initial spilling of beer resulted in the confrontation that ultimately ends with two people dead.”
“This wouldn’t have happened without the defendant Amber Scholz having at least indirectly caused the situation by bringing her husband and Mr. Montoya into this,” he said.
Sawtelle, however, did lower Amber Scholz’s bail from $250,000 to $150,000.
At Rogers’ request, the judge set the trial date for March 4. The attorneys for the other two defendants said it is unlikely they will be ready for trial by then.