My View: Defense Tells Story of Wrongful Prosecution in the KetMoRee Case

One of the big mysteries has been how we went from a six-defendant murder case to a case in which the charges against five of the defendants were dropped.  Unfortunately, the district attorney’s office shed very little light on what transpired, but now for the first time, Rod Beede, one of the publicly appointed defense attorneys, sheds some light for us.

As Mr. Beede explains in an op-ed in the local paper, the night of September 19, 2015, saw two groups of people at KetMoRee to celebrate different occasions.

Trouble seemed to begin when “[o]ne member of the wedding party approached a female member of the Vacaville group and touched her and perhaps some of her friends inappropriately.”

At this point the two groups confronted each other and emotions ran high, “fueled by alcohol and youthful adrenaline.”

Mr. Beede explains, “A beer was spilled and then one member of the wedding party threw a punch. A melee erupted.”

Peter Gonzales, a member of the wedding group, “ended up on top of one of the Vacaville group. Victor Vergara then made the fateful decision to stab Gonzales, killing him.”

At this point, Mr. Vergara was charged with first-degree murder, with the prosecution alleging “he had, with ‘malice and premeditation,’ struck the fatal blow. A special circumstance was added that
he committed the murder for gang purposes.”

The remaining members of Mr. Vergara’s entourage were charged “with being associated with a criminal street gang under a theory that if a gang member is involved in any disturbance of the peace and one of their members uses lethal force, all can be charged with murder.”

The charges went on for two years.

“A senior member of the Yolo County Public Defender’s Office was assigned a defendant and two-thirds of our county’s conflict defense panel were appointed to represent four other defendants. Tens of thousands of discovery pages, DVDs, CDs and videos were reviewed, the vast majority of which had little to do with the events of that night but instead centered around proving that the crime was committed for criminal street gang purposes.”

Mr. Beede writes, “Eventually, both sides accepted that Vergara alone had administered the fatal blow, that an intoxicated member of the wedding party had inappropriately touched one or more of the Vacaville women, and that another of his friends had thrown the first punch.”

Mr. Beede points out: “Appellate courts have become more uncomfortable with young men being sent to prison for being associated with gangs in an altercation in which one of their members took lethal action, and have ruled that the primary motivation for the crime must be gang-related.”

Mr. Beede asks an important question: “We ask: If a member of the wedding party had killed one of the Vacaville group, would he — let alone all of his friends and family — been charged with murder?”

The lessons from this tragedy are important, he writes, noting, “Young people need to control their emotions, especially when using alcohol. Nightclubs must provide proper security and watch carefully, especially toward closing time, the atmosphere of the club and the intoxication of their customers.”

He continues, saying that “we who defend these cases assert that until society invests more than a small fraction of the money given to law enforcement and prosecutors to arrest and convict young defendants into programs designed to offer positive alternatives to gang life, and to treat properly substance abuse and mental health problems, such violence and worse will continue to plague us all.

“And when prosecutions are less about what a person did and more about who or what they are perceived to be — when groups are identified, scorned, segregated, imprisoned and worse — some of the greatest horrors in world history are too often the result.”

The bottom line is that Mr. Beede’s view is that this case was charged wrongly from the start – that the five co-defendants involved in this case, while gang members, were not participants in the murder and yet languished in jail for two years before the charges against them were dismissed.

Worse yet, the DA simply dropped the charges without explaining enough to clear their names.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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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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