It was a case that stunned Davis to the core just over two years ago. On September 19, 2015, Los Angeles area college student Peter Gonzales, celebrating his sister’s wedding at KetMoRee Thai Restaurant & Bar late at night, was stabbed to death.
The killing spawned community outrage and the change in how late night clubs would operate in Davis. It took awhile, but eventually six men were arrested – one charged with the actual stabbing, and the others accused of aiding and abetting the crime, allegedly carried out for the purposes of criminal street gang activity.
The case went to a surprise secret Grand Jury indictment rather than the normal public preliminary hearing route. There were questions about the indictment, but the charges were upheld. Finally, nearly two and a half years after the killing, the trial was expected to begin this week, but on Tuesday that all came to a sudden and stunning end.
A plea agreement was announced where Victor Vergara, now 24 and alleged to be the man who actually stabbed Mr. Gonzales, pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter, which included enhancements for the use of a weapon (the knife) and criminal street gang activity.
With the original charges, Mr. Vergara faced life in prison. Now he is expected to receive a 22-year prison sentence without a life term.
Meanwhile, for his five co-defendants – Carlos Biviescas, Martyn Contreras, Anthony Rivera, Joseph Sandeno and Zackary Sandeno – the murder and gang charges were completely dismissed. Like Mr. Vergara, they faced life in prison if convicted, as they were accused of aiding and abetting the crime which is treated the same as the murder.
According to the DA’s release, “Defendant Victor Vergara plead to added Count 4, a violation of Penal Code 192 (Manslaughter) for 11 years, plus a gang enhancement under Penal Code 186.22(b)(1)(C) for an additional 10 years, as well as personal use of a knife under Penal Code 12022(b)(1) for an additional year for a total of 22 years related to the killing of Peter Gonzales.”
Mr. Vergara also pleaded guilty to additional charges in a separate case related to an assault in jail. With two enhancements he will receive a consecutive five year, four month prison term for his December 12 involvement in an attack on a fellow inmate that resulted in serious injuries, including an orbital fracture.
Co-Defendants Anthony Rivera and Joseph Sandeno pleaded guilty to the assault by means of force likely to produce great bodily injury and there will be a hearing on February 7 to determine if the defendants will get probation or prison.
Mr. Vergara will be sentenced on January 29 at 9 am in Department 14.
A source told the Vanguard that the plea agreement came as little surprise, as there was an expectation that the evidence would show that this was a bar fight that got out of hand. One person escalated it to make it a lethal stabbing, but the other participants were not involved in the killing.
Another source told the Vanguard that the co-defendants likely would have been acquitted had the case gone to trial.
Garrett Hamilton, who prosecuted the case, told the Enterprise that changes in gang laws made it more difficult to prosecute gang-related cases.
“California courts have published several cases in the last few years that have added challenges to the prosecution of gang cases,” he told the paper.
Meanwhile, Public Defender Tracie Olson told the paper that her office’s client, Zachary Sandeno, and the others “have lost two years of their lives facing murder charges based not on their own actions, but on the prosecution’s theory that if one gang affiliate commits a crime then everyone present with the culprit must also be responsible.
“Defense attorneys have long maintained that not every crime committed by an individual gang member is committed for the benefit of the gang,” Ms. Olson added. “Simply being present when another commits a crime is insufficient to convict.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting