A member of a Norteño-affiliated street gang pleaded guilty in federal court Thursday to four counts of attempted murder in connection with a 2010 triple-fatal shooting in South San Francisco that targeted a group of men perceived to be rival gangmembers.
But under a plea bargain, federal prosecutors will drop charges that the defendant, Justin Whipple, 21, of San Bruno, murdered the three young men who died in the shooting.
Whipple was one of four members of the 500 Block/C Street Gang in South San Francisco who were charged with the drive-by shooting attack on seven young men in South San Francisco on Dec. 22, 2010.
The shooting happened near the intersection of Eighth Lane and Linden Avenue at about 7:15 p.m. that day.
Two victims, 18-year-old Omar Cortez and 19-year-old Gonzalo Avalos, died at the scene and a third, 20-year-old Hector Flores, succumbed to his wounds later at San Francisco General Hospital.
Three others were wounded, and the seventh victim targeted was not hit by the gunfire, according to prosecutors.
One other defendant, Joseph Ortiz Jr., 23, of South San Francisco, pleaded guilty last year to 25 counts including the three murders and was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Susan Illston to five consecutive life terms. The other two men accused in the murders are awaiting trial.
At Thursday’s hearing before Illston in a San Francisco courtroom, Whipple pleaded guilty to a total of seven counts — racketeering conspiracy that included plots to murder, the four counts of attempted murder, one count of use or possession of a firearm in a crime resulting in death, and an additional count of using a firearm in a violent crime.
Prosecutors will dismiss three counts of murder in aid of racketeering that were lodged against Whipple in a 2012 federal grand jury indictment.
Outside of court, defense attorney David Andersen said that while Whipple admitted to the racketeering conspiracy and gun possession charges, he did not fire shots during the attack on the seven young men on Dec. 22, 2010.
“He did not shoot anybody. He refused to participate,” Andersen said.
Whipple will be sentenced by Illston on June 6. Under the plea agreement, prosecution and defense attorneys will recommend a sentence of between 14 and 16 years in prison, but Illston will not be bound by those recommendations. Federal sentencing guidelines, which are advisory, would call for a sentence of 40 years to life for the seven counts.
“There is no guarantee it will be between 14 and 16 years. It could be worse than that,” Illston told Whipple before accepting his guilty plea.
Whipple originally faced a potential rare federal death penalty if convicted of the three alleged murders in aid of racketeering, but earlier in the case prosecutors said they would not seek the death penalty for Whipple and two others. Ortiz avoided a possible death penalty by pleading guilty.
The indictment alleged the gang’s racketeering, or operation of a continuing criminal enterprise, included murderous attacks on rivals, drug dealing and robbery.
The 500 Block/C Street gang was originally two separate Norteño-affiliated gangs in South San Francisco that merged in the mid-2000s, according to the indictment.
Whipple and Ortiz were among 19 alleged members and associates of the gang named in the indictment. Including Whipple, 15 of the defendants have now pleaded guilty to various charges.