Monday marked the opening arguments in the trial of Christian Rizo, accused of the shooting death of 31-year-old Arnulfo “Happy” Bermudez in June of 2016. The attorneys gave conflicting accounts of just who was the shooter. Christian Rizo is on trial for first degree murder and gang charges, while the defense alleges it may have been someone else.
In his opening statement, Deputy District Attorney Jay Linden began by reading street poetry or rap lyrics written by Christian Kiki Rizo which depicted him as threatening rival gang members with murder.
On the night in question, June 29, 2016, a dark sedan pulls into a parking lot outside of the Windmere Apartments in the heart of what Mr. Linden called Norteño Turf. They get out of the car for about 38 minutes, when, at 12:38, they get back in the car and leave the parking lot.
Arnulfo Bermudez, known by his friends as “Happy,” was sitting in a red Mustang convertible. In the car with him is Neil Silva. Mr. Silva described what happened to police as a dark car pulled up next to Happy’s. Someone wearing a mask, raising a shotgun, yells “f—ing scraps” and fires one shot. The Mustang then accelerates and slams into a silver Audi.
The driver of the dark sedan was Adrianna Pena. She was tracked down by police in Texas over a year after the incident. Facing criminal charges for her role, she admitted to driving, that she drove around, and as they approached the Mustang, Christian Rizo and the third inhabitant of the vehicle told Ms. Pena to stop, as they wanted to “check this guy.”
She said both got out of the car, she heard a shotgun blast and saw a cut under the eye of Mr. Rizo.
As she drove off, both men told her, “Never talk about this.”
A key witness to this is Neil Silva, who was in the car with Happy Bermudez. After the shooting Mr. Silva, who was intoxicated and possibly high on meth, was said to be yelling and screaming – “Izzy did this!” Izzy refers to Israel Alvarez.
Mr. Silva also removed a gun and hid it in the vehicle, as Mr. Linden stated he didn’t want this to look like a gang hit. He ended up giving the gun to someone.
As two police officers enter the scene, Mr. Silva points to a vehicle, but it was the wrong vehicle, occupied by Muslim men. Happy Bermudez dies on the scene.
An additional witness gives information to the police on the scene, but neither of them could see the face of the shooter. None of the leads pan out and the case goes cold.
However, in July 2017, there is a shake up as the Yolo County Gang Task Force has the Sheriff’s Department rotated off and a Woodland Police Patrol officer, Pablo Gonzales, takes over. In viewing the video, Officer Gonzales, familiar with the Woodland street scene, immediately recognizes two people from the video – Adrianna Pena and Christian Rizo.
Ms. Pena was arrested in Woodland and eventually cooperated with authorities. While Mr. Linden argued that she received no more promises, later in the defense’s opening, J. Toney, Mr. Rizo’s defense attorney, argued otherwise.
Ms. Pena received a plea agreement for her role in which she will get probation in exchange for cooperation, as opposed to being an accessory to murder which could carry a life sentence.
Other key evidence comes from Evan Savala, who was also facing charges on an unrelated case. He is a friend of Mr. Rizo and a Norteño gang member. He says that Mr. Rizo told him the shotgun caused the cut.
Acting on this information, the police arrested Mr. Rizo on September 26.
Mr. Linden said of the victim, “He was a target of opportunity. He was the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time wearing the wrong colors.”
He called this a “gang murder in gang territory.”
J. Toney then gave his opening statement for the defense. He said that there was friction between Neil Silva and Happy Bermudez, as both were interested in the same woman and were said to be fighting over her.
He pointed out that there are problems with Mr. Silva’s statement. First, he was certain that other people had done it. His initial statement was that it was another individual – Izzy. Israel Alvarez is a man that the police continue to attempt to “clear” of this murder.
It was Mr. Silva who hid the firearm in Happy Bermudez’s car and his statements to authorities kept changing.
Mr. Rizo was linked to the shooting through three things: his lifestyle, the statements of Pena and Savala, and the cut on his face.
Mr. Toney argued that gang lyrics which depict shootings and revenge against rival gang members are part of his lifestyle. He argued that Mr. Rizo was not a saint by any means, but none of that indicates he actually shot anyone in real life.
He disputed the fact that there were no promises made to Pena or Savala, both of whom faced lengthy prison sentences and had every incentive to cooperate with authorities. In particular, he noted that Ms. Pena was interrogated for hours under pressure, despite her repeated demands to assert her Miranda rights and request an attorney.
She was threatened with first degree murder, but received what Mr. Toney called “a tremendous deal.” She would receive probation in a case in which she faced a life sentence.
She never saw the shooting and, in fact, says she heard shots later.
Mr. Savala, Mr. Toney argued, faced prison too, and he wanted consideration “and he is getting it.”
Mr. Toney pointed out the evidence of the cut on the face of the defendant is tied in by Mr. Savala, but he argued that they can prove the cut was received doing field work.
He pointed out that, initially, Neil Silva pointed to Izzy Alvarez – who the defense believes is the appropriate suspect in this case that police, for reasons not articulated, have ruled out.
Mr. Toney concluded by arguing there is not only reasonable doubt, but a strong suspicion about who it did, and it was not Mr. Rizo.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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