Pre-Trial Hearing in Davis Nightclub Stabbing Shows Evidence of Gang Activity

By Danielle Eden C. Silva

The trial for the co-defendants of the 2015 KetMoRee murder was slated to begin at the start of the week, but in the meantime, two previous incidents were presented as evidence against the defendants of the Davis nightclub stabbing.

On September 19, 2015, the fatal stabbing of Los Angeles college student Peter Alexander Gonzales occurred at KetMoRee Thai Restaurant, which transformed into a nightclub at night and is located on Davis’ G Street. The accused defendants, Victor Manuel Vergara, Carlos Biviescas, Martyn Alex Contreras, Anthony Daniel Rivera, Zackary Thomas Sandeno and Joseph Gregory Sandeno, all of Vacaville, are facing murder charges with gang enhancements and knowingly and actively participating in criminal street gang activity.

The first incident brought up today concerned Zackary Sandeno and Joseph Sandeno.

Officer Dustin Willis appeared on the stand. He stated that he has been a Vacaville police officer for nine years. Prior to his service in Vacaville, he worked for four years as a peace officer in Los Angeles.

The prosecution expanded in detail his interactions with gangs. Officer Willis, having worked on gang enforcement for a year, noted that his gang experience in L.A. offered over a thousand interactions with gang members. He shared his experience with Vacaville gang activities, identification, and locations where gang members hang out.

In a case on October 25, 2012, a group stood together on a basketball court of Trower Park in Vacaville. Officer Willis recounted passing by this scene in an unmarked vehicle, before dark and
established surveillance. In this area, Officer Willis stated, usually children would be playing basketball on said court; here, men wearing baggy clothing stood around and appeared to be watching the area.

Officer Willis established surveillance and discovered the group to be relaying a series of signs, whistles, and yells every time a marked police car passed by. In noticing this strange behavior, he caught sight of three individuals – one in a black hooded sweatshirt, one in a black sweatshirt with a California logo, and another with a black hat and black sweatshirt. These three emerged out of the southeast corner of the park, hidden in the trees.

The man described with simply the black hooded sweatshirt walked out with what Officer Willis suspected to be a handgun. A police car passed, and the large group let off a series of whistles which led to the retreat of the three men to their original positions. At this point, Officer Willis called dispatch with the suspicion a gang assault was about to occur.

He established himself at a location that he believed the three men would attempt to escape through once dispatch arrived. As the man in the black sweatshirt came out, Officer Willis waited several moments before demanding that he lie on the ground with his hands up. The hooded man immediately took the object out of his waistband, turned his back to the officers, and threw it over the fence in view of Officer Willis.

In addition to his testimony, Officer Willis identified Zackary Sandeno as being present in the incident as the man with the California logo on his sweatshirt. Mr. Sandeno’s tattoos appeared familiar, but Officer Willis could not officially put a name to a face until after Mr. Sandeno had been released. During the defense’s cross-examination, Officer Willis pointed out that Sandeno did not carry any drugs and was not seen committing any crimes; however, the concern with a potential gang assault was paramount, in his opinion.

After Officer Willis was excused, the prosecution presented Officer Willis to the court as a gang expert, which was approved by Judge David Rosenberg, with the official paperwork filed.

In the continued account of the October 25, 2012, case, Officer Richard Jimenez testified. In being dispatched by Officer Willis, Officer Jimenez had established himself on the other side of the park. Three figures appeared to be running toward him. He ordered a figure, wearing a black hoodie with a Northern California logo, on the ground, then restrained him for handcuffing. The man he detained immediately began moving his torso up and down and demanded the spectators record him. Believing the man to be harming himself, Officer Jimenez and another officer placed him inside the car. After discovering he had no weapons, drugs, or contraband on him, the detainee was released after several photographs were taken.

In his testimony, Officer Jimenez confirmed that the man he had detained was Zackary Sandeno, one of the defendants present in the courtroom. His familiarity with Mr. Sandeno came from being a youth service officer.

In presenting this case, the prosecutor Garrett Hamilton argued that this was proof that Zackary Sandeno and Joseph Sandeno had both been involved in gang activity; however, he would provide further evidence as to Joseph Sandeno’s presence in that incident. While they were not committing any crimes, they had been accused of associating in gang activity, an established charge in the KetMoRee case as well. The defense argued against it, claiming they were hanging out and that allowing evidence of the 2012 case was prejudicial.

Judge Rosenberg allowed the 2012 case to be used as evidence under the condition that limitations were placed on the testimony.

The second case came with the testimony of Detective Erik Watts of the Vacaville police force. On June 19, 2014, Detective Watts drove in a marked police vehicle through the Vacaville area. He spotted a vehicle without a front license plate and pulled the car over to speak with the driver, Victor Vergara. Detective Watts stated he had became familiar with Mr. Vergara from a previous incident.

Upon approaching the vehicle, Det. Watts noticed the smell of marijuana from the passenger side of the car. Det. Watts, at that point with probable cause, asked the driver, Mr. Vergara, and his friend to step out of the car so he could search the vehicle for drugs. In going through the vehicle, he found nothing in the driver’s side of the car and moved to the trunk.

In opening the trunk, Detective Watts discovered a hockey mask with several red dots and a red bandana. Detective Watts photographed the mask and bandana before letting Vergara and his passenger off with a warning. With that in mind, he filed his field investigation report, which did not span more than two sentences.

The defense argued this case should be excluded from the evidence because Detective Watts relied solely on his independent memory. On that memory alone, he could not remember if the marijuana smell was burned or fresh. In addition, probable cause did not allow Det. Watts to search beyond the passenger seat. Judge Rosenberg allowed this case to remain as evidence, stating that Detective Watts’ probable cause did allow him to search beyond simply the passenger seat.

The proceedings concerning admissible evidence will reconvene on December 14 at 10 am in Department 14.

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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