Orange County Prosecutors Dealt Setback in Mexican Mafia Murder Plot Case

SANTA ANA (CNS) - Orange County prosecutors have been dealt a legal setback in their murder case against at least one of five defendants, including reputed Orange County Mexican Mafia chief Johnny Martinez, due to fallout from the Orange County sheriff's evidence booking scandal.

Unlike his co-defendants, Augustine Velazquez, 24, has pushed for a trial and does not want to waive any more time in the case so he will go on trial first. His trial is scheduled to begin next week.

On Monday, Orange County Superior Court Judge Patrick Donahue granted a motion to dismiss multiple gang-related charges and sentencing enhancements in the case when defense attorney Rob Harley argued prosecutors' evidence from a gang expert during the preliminary hearing was tainted because the sheriff's deputy was dishonest on the stand.

Deputy Brian Murray has been placed on administrative leave and is under investigation because of his testimony in the preliminary hearing when Velazquez, Martinez, 45, and other co-defendants Gregory Munoz, 33, Ysrael Cordova, 36, and Ricardo Valenzuela, 41, were bound over for trial in February on charges related to the Jan. 19, 2017, killing of 35-year-old Robert Rios in Placentia.

During the preliminary hearing, attorney Joel Garson, who represents Cordova, the accused triggerman, attacked Murray's credibility by raising questions about Murray's failure to book evidence in a timely manner as required.

The Orange County Sheriff's Department has been rocked by a scandal involving multiple deputies accused of failing to book evidence on time. Two deputies have been convicted.

“Murray's multiple violations of willfully secreting evidence in his personal locker and/or his personal desk constitutes relevant impeachment evidence,” Harley argued in his motion to dismiss gang charges.

“Murray claimed during the preliminary hearing there was no policy on booking evidence at the end of his shift and that when he received notification of his booking violation in 2020 the Orange County Sheriff's Department had first instituted a new policy requiring him to book evidence at the end of his shift on the same day the evidence was collected,” Harley wrote in his motion. “Murray's testimony about the Orange County Sheriff's booking policy was false.”

Harley said the department has a manual mandating evidence must be booked by the end of the shift. Harley said prosecutors notified him on April 15 that Murray was placed on administrative leave due to his “repeatedly testifying that he received no discipline for his booking evidence,” according to the motion.

Evidence showed, however, that Murray was trained on Jan. 15, 2015, on the handling of evidence, Harley said. He was also cited in an audit of violating the policy for booking evidence late 46 times, according to court papers.

Deputy District Attorney Holly Woesner argued in court papers that Donahue should not dismiss the gang charges because “there was no prejudicial error that would have affected the outcome of the preliminary hearing.”

She argued that there was testimony from other law enforcement agents aside from Murray that could bolster the case of gang charges.

“The records do not actually reveal Deputy Murray was `trained' regarding evidence collection and preservation,” Woesner argued in court papers. Murray, she argued, was merely a gang expert on the case and had no role in the investigation of the alleged crimes.

The attorneys for the other defendants may also prepare similar motions to have gang charges and sentencing enhancements dismissed. Another problem for prosecutors is the case cannot be refiled so another gang expert could testify during a preliminary hearing because it was already refiled once when an indictment against the defendants was thrown out due to an error in presenting the case to a grand jury.

Velazquez's co-defendants are all charged with conspiracy, murder, attempted robbery, burglary and participating in gang activity, with sentence enhancement gang activity allegations and a special circumstance allegation of killing during a robbery.

Valenzuela and Cordova also face a felony count of being a felon in possession of a gun. Cordova additionally faces a sentencing enhancement allegation of the personal discharge of a gun causing death. The others face sentencing enhancements for the vicarious discharge of a gun causing death. Martinez was serving a 15-year-to-life prison sentence in Salinas Valley State Prison in Monterey County for a 1994 murder when he allegedly helped to orchestrate the killing of Rios, according to court records. Martinez is also charged in connection with the attempted murder in Placentia in August 2017 of his co-defendant Munoz, who, by that time, had gotten out of prison.

Like Martinez, Munoz was incarcerated at the time of Rios' killing -- serving time in the Calipatria State Prison in Imperial County. Charles Frederick Coghill, 37, was also charged in the Rios killing, but was not included in the indictment. He was a witness before the grand  jury and is expected to testify for prosecutors.

Munoz is accused of using contraband cellphones while behind bars to order the crew to collect “taxes” from Rios, Senior Deputy District Attorney Dave Porter said during the preliminary hearing.

Munoz sent a text message to Coghill saying the gang needed zip ties, tape and a mask before going to Rios' home, Portre alleged.

“They were going to Rios to rob and steal,” Porter alleged at the preliminary hearing. Coghill also retrieved weapons and “handed them out” to the other defendants, Porter said.

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