District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe will not seek death for three gangmembers charged with murder but said his office has yet to decide whether to pursue the option for several of the 16 others indicted in a wide-ranging sweep earlier this year.
Although they could still receive life in prison without parole if convicted of capital murder, Nina Mehrnoosh Cragg, 23, of Palo Alto; Roberto Busto-Montes, 24, of East Palo Alto; and Emmanuel Hyland, 25, of East Palo Alto, will not face the possibility of Death Row.
All three reportedly belong to the Sac Street gang and were indicted with nine others for a range of 2012 and 2013 crimes including four murders in East Palo Alto and San Francisco, a highway shooting in Belmont, a robbery and attempting to keep witnesses quiet. Other charged crimes include drug trafficking, bribery, firearms possession and conspiracy. The crimes reportedly began when the Da Vill and Sac Street gangs of East Palo Alto teamed up against the Taliban gang of East Palo Alto and Menlo Park.
No decision has been made to the other nine charged with murder plus special gang circumstances that make them death penalty-eligible, Wagstaffe said.
The indictments came in March after an 18-month long investigation and a two-month criminal grand jury which was eight times longer than any other ever conducted in San Mateo County.
The investigation, nicknamed “Operation Sunny Day” in reference to the code word used by gangmembers to indicate a completed murder, nabbed 16 defendants ranging in age from 19 to 28.
The others are Raymond Bradford, 28, of East Palo Alto; Ralph Vernon Fields Jr., 26, of East Palo Alto; Tyrone Love-Lopez, 21, of East Palo Alto; Eric Valencia Vargas, 20, of East Palo Alto; Marvin Jake Ware, 26, of East Palo Alto, Donte Demon Jordan, 19, of East Palo Alto; Roshawn Bickham, 25 of Hayward; LaQuisha Walker, 28, of East Palo Alto; Leonard James Gaines, 21, of East Palo Alto; Rodney Levence Mitchell, 22, of Newark; Robert Wheller Jr., 26, of Hayward; Jerry Coneal III, 19, of Menlo Park and Miguel Angel Rivera Jr., 23, of East Palo Alto.
In April, Bustos-Montes’ defense attorney Paul DeMeester publicly called on Wagstaffe to take death off the table for all defendants because he said it is an unnecessary drain on county finances.
Defendants facing capital charges are appointed two attorneys and the defense racks up hefty bills for investigators, experts and their own work first to avoid a conviction and then, if necessary, to find mitigating reasons why the client should not face lethal injection, according to DeMeester.
After Monday’s announcement, DeMeester said he and his client were both thrilled death was off the table.
“Just not having the death prospect feels like a win,” he said, adding “I hope that my input was persuasive on the matter.”
His client, Bustos-Montes, is charged with Vargas and Hyland in the Oct. 5, 2012, fatal shooting of Christopher Baker, 21, in East Palo Alto.
The alleged crime spree began before that in September 2012, when Da Vill gangmembers Vargas, Ware and Bradford allegedly shot into another car on southbound Highway 101 near the Ralston Avenue exit and hit two passengers.
Bradford is also charged with the attempted robbery in a Middlefield Road jewelry store heist that ended with the clerk pulling out a shotgun.
Operation Sunny Day also included the deaths of Stoney Gipson in San Francisco on Oct. 7, 2012, Jonathan Neri Alzacar on Jan. 14, 2013, in East Palo Alto and Lamont Darnell Coleman, 21, on Jan. 16, 2013, in East Palo Alto.
Cragg, Bustos-Montes and Hyland are charged in Coleman’s death. Bustos-Montes is also charged with the murders of Gipson and Hyland is charged in the murders of Coleman, Gipson and Alzacar.
The defendants are held in custody on bail amounts ranging from $500,000 to none. Coneal and Rivera are in custody in other counties.
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