It started in the early morning hours of June 19, 2013, when a couple was approached outside of the Cottonwood 7-Eleven in Woodland. According to prosecutors, they asked him if he had money. When he said no, he was asked if he “bangs,” if he was a “scrap” or a “DO.” When he failed to respond, he was hit and attacked.
Four young Latinos ended up being arrested for allegedly beating and robbing this Woodland man, stealing his Cheetos, Pepsi and his bike. They were charged with second degree robbery, assault with great bodily injury, and a gang enhancement because someone yelled a gang slur.
However, the case suffered from serious witness identification issues from the start. Store video shows two of the defendants, Jose Jimenez and Juan Fuentes, run out of the store, but no evidence that they were involved.
It would go to trial three times, but only Juan Fuentes was convicted of the robbery. In February of this year, Judge David Rosenberg sentenced him to 16 years in prison.
Mr. Fuentes had a prior strike from a conviction when he was 15 years old and gang enhancements. Defense Attorney Bob Spangler, representing Mr. Fuentes, pled with the judge to disallow the previous strike during sentencing, but it was quickly denied, although Judge Rosenberg did not feel this conviction was worthy of second strike.
The other defendants were convicted of the gang charge alone.
But during testimony and in written reports, police identified these four men, alleging that on the night in question, both victims, Mr. Nichols and Ms. Beatty had identified them from a field line-up and even a particular haircut that one of the defendants wore at that time.
Although the two were reluctant to testify against the four young men each time, they both reiterated, “No, I am not afraid of retaliation,” during trial testimony.
Mr. Nichols at one point stated, “I do not want to see them go to prison, I would feel bad sending kids to prison. I could not see that night, I was too busy fighting.”
Ms. Beatty stated on the stand, “The cops put words in my mouth.”
The Vanguard talked to Ms. Beatty about the incident. She was incredulous that they could give Mr. Fuentes a 16-year sentence for what she described as a fight. “Here’s my concern, I felt like we were bullied,” she said.
“From the beginning when the guys were arrested to the end, there was so many lies,” she said. “I’m not sure if they got the wrong guys, I couldn’t tell you one way or another. And I told them that.”
“It was a fight,” she explained. “Nobody came to rob us. Whatever happened that night, nobody showed up to rob us.”
Ms. Beatty described coming out of 7-Eleven. Words were exchanged between Mr. Nichols, her boyfriend, and another guy. She looked up at her boyfriend because someone yelled “tweaker” and she said, “My reaction was to look at him because he’s a hot-head. He’s a fighter.”
The person then walked into the store. She was trying to get him out of there before the person came back out.
They got to the corner, and there were some kids (high school age) on the corner who were being rowdy and laughing. She tried to keep her head down but heard them talking about how they didn’t have any money. One of them said, “Well ask this b—- if she has a dollar.”
Ms. Beatty looked back to see if her boyfriend heard that, “because I knew if he heard that it was going to be not good.” She said, “One thing you don’t do is you don’t flirt with his girlfriend and you don’t disrespect his girlfriend.”
She said, “I looked back and there’s my boyfriend and he’s heated.”
At this point the fight started happening. She stayed next to him to keep them off him. “None of them turn on me and they could have because I was right in it,” she said.
Mr. Nichols, she said, had a shoulder injury and his shoulder came out of its socket. At that point, she knew they were going to gain the upper hand.
Mr. Nichols was not injured in the fight other than the recurring shoulder injury, which was not initially caused by this incident. “Anytime he gets into a fight, he re-injures that arm,” she said.
Someone from Taco Bell asked if they needed help and she said, “Yes, we need help.” The police were called.
She said, “There were enough opportunities that if it were gang and robbery, I exposed myself so much, that someone could have beat my a–. I felt confident enough to be alone on the corner in a fight without getting hit.”
“To this day, I don’t know how they went down the street and arrested these boys. I don’t know where they got their info from or anything,” she said.
Her boyfriend, seeing the police, took off running because he thought he had a warrant. She said, “I ain’t talking to no cops.” When he took off running, one of the police officers almost hit him with the car.
Ms. Beatty said the officer picked up the radio and said, “Yeah we’ve got them because they’re eating their groceries.”
At this point she said, “I was angry thinking those are the f- idiots who did this.” So after hearing the police officer state this, she said, “Yeah that’s them.”
But she said, “Anybody in that fight could never have identified anyone. It happened so fast and so intense.” She said, “I felt like they were not given a fair shake. I don’t want to see a boy going to prison for 16 years unless beyond a reasonable doubt they know that’s him. And on top of that there was no robbery.”
“I’m going to keep it real with you, we’re tweakers, who wanted to rob anything from us?” she asked.
Ms. Beatty told the Vanguard, “I think that they took this opportunity because maybe the boys had a history. I think they took this and twisted it and turned it, and found a way to make an example out of them.”
She said, “I’ve lost complete respect for the justice system (at least in Woodland). I don’t trust it. I have seen awful things in the last couple of years and this is one of the most awful.” She said, “A kid is going to lose 16 years of his life.”
“They just used us to make an example out of them and I think its bulls–,” she continued.
As part of their efforts to coerce her to testify, she said she was put into custody for five days on a material witness warrant.
“They threw me in jail when I went to pick up my subpoena,” she said. She said when she was picking up the subpoena, she told the lady from the gang task force that she could not identify the individuals involved. The lady told her, “we have a warrant.”
Ms. Beatty said, “Up until I said I couldn’t identify the dudes, I was just going to be handed the subpoena.”
Following one of the trials, the Vanguard spoke to a juror. The juror said, “I was never convinced by the prosecution of anything more than the four kids were possible gang members but that was about it.”
He said, “But I did feel some of the witnesses were lying. I felt some of the jury panel was biased because the boys may have appeared to be gang members but it never changed my mind of innocence or guilt.”
He continued that he felt jurors were tired and did not understand the law in deciding on a verdict correctly.
He told the Vanguard, “I feel bad for the young boys and was convinced, through the video and evidence presented, they were in fact innocent.”
In the next segment of this story, the Vanguard spoke with Cindy Fuentes, the mother of 20-year-old Juan Fuentes.
—David M. Greenwald reporting