Dressed neatly in a white oxford cloth shirt with a blue pullover sweater, David Medina, a.k.a. “Happy,” pursed his lips and appeared to listen closely as Judge John Thompson handed down Medina’s sentence — nine consecutive life terms plus 156 years. It was August 1, 2001. Medina was 24 years old.
Earlier during the sentencing hearing, Medina explained to Judge Thompson that he had been wrongly convicted on July 3 of four counts of first-degree murder and five counts of attempted murder in gang-related shootings between 1996 and 1999. “I know I’ve made a lot of poor decisions in my life,” Medina said, “but I also know I can say I’ve been convicted of crimes I didn’t commit.”
Before Medina pleaded his case to the judge, his mother read a prepared statement explaining her family’s “unconditional love for our son” and her belief that “David is innocent of the charges against him.” She commended her son for “facing this indescribable ordeal with courage and dignity” and vowed to “do everything to exonerate David and reunite him with his family.”
After her statement, Armando Vasquez, one victim’s father, read a brief statement. “I’d also like to reiterate my unconditional love for my son,” Vasquez said. “David Medina is a poor excuse for a human being.”
Medina’s crimes stunned his family and friends; they simply baffled everyone else. People that I spoke with could not fathom that someone with his talents and intellect could murder for the sake of a small street gang. Medina’s story doesn’t corroborate anything anyone knows, or thinks he knows, about gangs and urban violence. Though the crimes themselves are solved, the motives will always be a mystery.
David Medina was a kind son, a loving father, a cum laude graduate of UC San Diego, a passionate advocate for social justice, and a trigger-happy leader of the Southeast Locos — a local gang with turf from Southeast San Diego down to Chula Vista. The gang’s 30 or so members had a reputation for being well educated, employed, and violent.
I gleaned this narrative of Medina’s life, crimes, and trial from a variety of sources, including the prosecution’s statement of fact, court documents outlining grand jury and trial testimony, police interviews with witnesses and suspects, letters between attorneys, and interviews with the few people willing to talk about the case. The single best source for information about Medina is the sentencing document presented to the court by his appointed defense attorney, Douglas Brown.
The bound book — submitted about three weeks before the day of the sentencing to aid the defense’s request for leniency — includes chapters on Medina’s family, “early years,” “college years,” “commitment to social justice,” and brief marriage. It also includes an appendix of letters written in support of Medina by his family, friends, professors, and coworkers. The district attorney’s office and the court did withhold certain documents, however, because the second trial of Ruben “Bandit” Bernal, a Southeast Loco charged with some of the same crimes as Medina, was still pending while I worked on this story.
“He likes Far Side cartoons and tuna fish,” the defense’s sentencing document explains. He is an “avid weight lifter” and “wants to go to law school so that he can utilize the law to help poor people.” By all appearances, Medina was a normal, though gifted, college graduate. David Arturo Medina was born on September 29, 1976, in Delano, California — a farming town on Highway 99 between Bakersfield and Fresno. His parents, Eliseo Vasquez Medina and Dorothy Ann Johnson, were volunteers with the United Farm Workers of America — César Chávez’s farmers union.
Medina’s father and Chávez were close friends and comrades during the 1970s. Eliseo Medina emigrated from Mexico when he was ten. He was the son of a Mexican farmworker who participated in the U.S. bracero program, which ran from 1942 to 1964. The U.S. Department of Labor had brought in Mexican braceros — “a pair of arms” — during World War II to fill jobs vacated by Okies and others shipped off to join the military or to work in urban factories. According to Susan Ferriss and Ricardo Sandoval, authors of The Fight in the Fields: César Chávez and the Farmworkers Movement (1997), during the postwar years the bracero program “was riddled with abuse. Delighted with what turned out to be a compliant, dutiful, and cheap workforce during World War II, western farmers had successfully lobbied federal agencies to continue the bracero program into peacetime.” Ernesto Galarza, an educated advocate for better conditions for the braceros, described in his 1964 book Merchants of Labor how the workers were forced to eat “sheep heads,” “chicken necks,” and “moldy leftovers.” These were the conditions that Chávez sought to improve through his union programs.
Eliseo grew interested in organizing because he experienced some of the awful working conditions himself when he was an 18-year-old farm laborer in Delano. He told Ferriss and Sandoval about an unscrupulous contractor who cheated his workers to cover bad debts. “Every Saturday we’d have to get up at six in the morning, and the whole crew would go and stake out his house and not leave until he paid us,” Eliseo said. “Here, this group of people had taken this guy and made him pay back wages. This guy was the biggest labor contractor around, and he got dinged!”
It was during the 1965 Delano grape strike — when Filipino, Mexican, and Chicano workers walked out of the fields — that Eliseo first met Chávez. On September 16, Mexican Independence Day, Eliseo sat at home nursing a broken leg and watching I Love Lucy. When he heard of the strike, he hobbled on crutches to Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, in Delano, and watched the small-statured Chávez galvanize the crowd. That night Eliseo shook all the money out of his piggy bank, went to the union office, and paid three months’ worth of dues, $10.50, all at once. He was quickly seduced by the cause. “We were standing tall,” he told Ferriss and Sandoval. He moved up the ranks and became one of the youngest organizers to earn Chávez’s trust.
When Eliseo was just 21, and before he had ever been east of Texas, Chávez ordered him to Chicago to organize a grape boycott. Ferriss and Sandoval report, Eliseo “led the boycott in one of the biggest cities in the country, rubbing shoulders with powerful politicians and speaking at huge labor conventions. Eliseo found Chicago’s supermarkets tough to crack, however, and he resorted to organizing sit-ins in the middle of stores.” When Eliseo grew homesick, he called Chávez and asked if he could return to Delano. Chávez told him to stick it out, and Eliseo remained in Chicago for two years.
“We got every single chain store in Chicago to stop selling grapes,” Eliseo later recalled.
Eliseo parted ways with Chávez in 1978 after an argument over changes in the legal department of the United Farm Workers union. Eliseo recalled for Ferriss and Sandoval that Chávez challenged him to leave if he did not like the changes. “So I did,” Eliseo said. Still, he remembers those years as among the best in his life. Eliseo remained a labor organizer and has climbed the ranks of the Service Employees International Union, one of the nation’s largest unions. He was a driving force behind the successful Justice for Janitors campaigns in Los Angeles and San Francisco and today, as executive vice president of the union, is organized labor’s de facto point man on immigration and amnesty issues. He is also masterminding a major campaign to organize L.A. County home health-care workers and another campaign at a chain of Catholic hospitals.
Medina was born just two years before Eliseo and Chávez went their different ways, but when he was growing up, he accompanied his father on voter registration drives and other union campaigns. The family moved around between hot, dusty cities, like Fresno and Keene in the Central Valley and Indio in the Coachella Valley. In 1979 the family moved to Long Beach; a year later Medina’s sister Elena was born. In a letter submitted with the defense’s sentencing document, Elena, an undergraduate at ucla, said that she admired her brother and respected his intellect. “He never pulled my hair, beat me up, or read my diary,” she wrote.
In 1981 the Medinas moved to Austin, Texas, where Dorothy entered law school. In Austin, Medina lived like most young boys. He collected baseball cards (and reportedly still has a great collection) and idolized the Cincinnati Reds outfielder Eric Davis. In a letter submitted with the sentencing document, Eliseo remembers Medina’s compassion on the soccer field. “David was always the first to help up his hurt teammates,” he wrote. Medina’s aunt, Shirley Johnston, remembered him as a “bright and cheerful little boy.” When Medina was ten, the family moved yet again, settling this time in Chula Vista. Medina entered the fifth grade at Kellogg Elementary. In 1989 Eliseo and Dorothy were separated; they divorced in 1993, when Medina was 17. Eliseo remarried in 1995; four years later, he and his wife adopted a daughter.
Medina attended Hilltop High School in Chula Vista, where he befriended gang members even as he managed to carry on a fruitful relationship with Claudia Martinez, graduate with honors in 1994, and win acceptance to UC San Diego. Medina had applied to UC Davis, UC Santa Barbara, and UC San Diego. He was accepted at all of the schools and entered Thurgood Marshall College at UCSD in 1994. In her letter in the sentencing document, Medina’s mother recalled, “When he got to UCSD, it was as if he discovered new talents and new possibilities within himself.” At UCSD Medina majored in sociology and minored in Urban Planning and in Law and Society. Medina took a wide variety of courses, including Spanish, Chaucer, African-American Literature, and Homelessness in America. He got an A in Youth, Crime, and Gangs.
At UCSD Medina also worked in the Summer Bridge Program, which helps underrepresented minority and economic populations prepare for college life. Throughout his years in college Medina impressed his professors. A sociology professor, Maria Charles, wrote, his “academic performance was excellent. I regarded him as one of the most talented and promising students in his cohort.” An ethnic studies professor, George Lipsitz, had a huge impact on Medina and admired his work ethic. Professor Lipsitz wrote, “During his last quarter at UCSD, I had many conversations with him in my office about his career goals and personal ambitions.” He added that Medina “radiated intelligence and empathy” and that others turned to him for “guidance.”
“His writing,” Lipsitz commented, “displayed moral passion and social compassion, asking — as all the best work in the humanities and social sciences does — what makes for a good community and a good society, what does one person owe to another and to society.”
A fellow student, Carl Christopher, also wrote a letter on Medina’s behalf: “I saw in David an unyielding passion for knowledge and human justice.” Another friend, Niroshi R. Dissanayake, wrote, “David is undoubtedly the single most inspiring figure in my life.”
Medina also worked in the weight room at UCSD’s recreational complex. He started as a supervisor and was quickly promoted to a “lead” position. His boss, Jeff Milton, wrote, “He was one of our best.” Jake Lacy, a coworker, noted, “Not only did David handle the pressure of being an honor student…he also is a very loving father.”
On December 29, 1995, Medina’s high school sweetheart Claudia gave birth to the couple’s daughter, Maya. Their parents were unhappy about the pregnancy, but Medina assured Claudia’s parents in their living room that he would care for the child and Claudia. In her letter, Claudia remembered that during her pregnancy Medina frequently read her passages from books he found on prenatal care. In June 1996, Medina and Claudia married, only to separate nine months later, though they shared custody of Maya. Maya’s baby-sitters said in their joint statement that she would cry for her father “when she was sleepy or tired.”
Claudia’s parents came to respect Medina for his hard work and parenting. In her letter in the sentencing document, Maria Martinez recalled that when Claudia was in high school, Medina would go around to her teachers when she was sick to collect her homework assignments. Medina’s mother described how he would pack Maya lunch because she liked watching him make his own lunches to bring to work. Medina also paid for Maya’s health-care premiums.
In 1998 Medina graduated cum laude from UCSD with a cumulative GPA of 3.66 and a 3.79 gpa in his major. He made the provost’s honor roll six times.
In January 1999 Medina started his first job. He commuted to Integrated Resources Institute in Irvine, an employment agency that helps clients with mental and physical disabilities find mainstream jobs. He would comb the want ads for jobs for his clients and would help them write résumés and prepare for interviews. Several months later, in March 1999, he learned of a position at the Fair Housing Council of San Diego. The position called for someone with much more experience and a master’s degree. But Medina performed so well in his interview that in April he was hired. He was serious about the job and traveled to Washington, D.C., on several occasions for work. Medina reportedly saw fair housing and fair loan laws as an antidote to weaknesses in civil rights laws. His mother recalled that he “learned how to run meetings and work with government officials.” The sentencing document quotes Medina as saying that he was particularly proud about one case he worked on. On behalf of a Spanish-speaking tenant, he intervened with an apartment manager. The tenant’s son, who was four, was incontinent and urinated in the building. The manager wanted the tenant out of the building, but Medina mediated an agreement. Mary Scott-Knoll, Medina’s supervisor at the Fair Housing Council, wrote, “David always showed…the utmost… respect.” Another coworker at the Fair Housing Council, David R. Estrella, called Medina “charismatic.”
But, according to Medina’s attorney, Doug Brown, he maintained ties to friends whose lives were headed in another direction. Three years before he was hired, he had already committed one of the murders he was eventually convicted of. Just months after he started work at the Fair Housing Council, he would take part in three more murders. One witness later testified that Medina had boasted to him about carrying a semiautomatic handgun to work in his briefcase. The witness said that the weapon made Medina “feel comfortable”; he liked “knowing that he was strapped.”
On October 29, 1994, months after he enrolled at UCSD, Medina crashed a party thrown by Martina Tangen for her son Matthew. Medina allegedly started a fight and Tangen asked him to leave. Medina threatened to shoot her, then fired a shot in the air. Detectives retrieved a casing from a .380-caliber handgun at the scene.
On June 21, 1996, 16-year-old Hector Martinez, a Hilltop High student, was walking toward the 7-Eleven located at Broadway and K Street in Chula Vista. He was with his 14-year-old brother, Jose, and two friends. They were allegedly members of the Varrio Chula Vista street gang. Meanwhile, some Southeast Locos attempted to enter a nearby nightclub, but because of their appearance they were not allowed in. The Southeast Locos then drove down Broadway; David Medina was behind the wheel of a green Ford Taurus. At Broadway and K Street, they saw the Varrio Chula Vista members; both sides threw up gang signs with their hands. The Southeast Locos drove away and the Varrio Chula Vistas continued down K Street. Several blocks away, the two groups saw each other again. Three of the Southeast Locos jumped out of the car and chased the Martinez brothers and their two friends on foot. Medina and a Southeast Loco named Julio Aguilar gave chase in Medina’s car.
Jose Martinez later remembered that a car pulled up when his group was at the intersection of Jefferson Avenue and Sierra Way; it was “bumping music,” he said. The car peeled away, and Hector told his younger brother that he had been shot. Hector was bleeding from the chest. Another witness remembered seeing a hand point out of the car window and then flashes fire from a gun.
Julio Aguilar later testified before a grand jury that the evening had begun at his house. The group decided to leave the house and go to Club Diversity. Aguilar went with Medina in a green Taurus, which belonged to Medina. After they were denied entry at the club, they went for a drive. When they encountered the Varrio Chula Vista gang, they threw their signs. Then they chased the Martinez brothers and their friends. Shots were fired. They drove back to Aguilar’s mother’s house. Aguilar testified that Medina said, “I hit him.” Medina then told Aguilar to pretend that he did it.
Hector Martinez died from his wounds. The bullet, from a .380-caliber handgun, entered the right side of his heart, fractured his ribs, and caused severe bleeding. Casings from the gun were later compared to a .380 casing found at the Tangens’ in 1994 and at the site of an attempted murder in 1997. The casings matched.
The 1997 attempted murder occurred on January 24. Alina Jefferies and her boyfriend Rafael Cruz were at the 7-Eleven on H Street in Chula Vista. Medina and a friend, David Bury, ran into the couple in front of the store. Bury, whom Jefferies knew as “Super Dave,” allegedly confronted them. Cruz went into the store and Jefferies told Medina and Bury to leave them alone because she was pregnant. When Cruz walked out of the store, Medina and Bury told him to shut up before he got “capped.” Then they followed Jefferies and Cruz across the street to La Tostada taco shop and started to beat them. Jefferies was shot in the stomach, but her fetus was not injured; Cruz was also shot. A limousine driver later identified Medina as one of the suspects.
Two and a half years later, on September 10, 1999, Adam Joshua Vasquez, 18, and Victor Manuel Vega IV, 19, were gunned down and killed as they left a party at 1193 Thalia Street in Nestor. Vasquez and Vega were cousins and members of a large, close-knit family. Police said that neither of them was a member of a gang. Vasquez, of Chula Vista, was a freshman at Southwestern Community College and a graduate of Castle Park High; Vega, who was born in National City, worked for a dry-cleaning company. Witnesses identified the assailants as up to 15 party-crashers in three cars who returned to the party after they were denied entry.
A female witness to the shooting said later that a green Honda drove by — “it was real shiny,” she recalled. “There were five guys in the car. It looked like they were ‘mad dogging’ my boyfriend.” Then she reported hearing gunshots. Another witness, Anthony Lam, said he had just arrived at the party when his car was shot at. He sped away.
A detective arrived at the scene at 11:55 p.m. He reported that a fence was knocked out. A red 1987 Toyota pickup had crashed through it. The headlights were on, the stereo was blasting, and the engine had stalled. Vega and Vasquez were in “grim” condition, the detective said. They had both been shot in the head. Vasquez’s brain stem was perforated; Vega had a bullet hole near his right ear.
Almost two months later, on November 6, 1999, Medina and a friend, Ruben Bernal, attended a party at Hospitality Point on Mission Bay. They were at a bonfire with other Southeast Locos west of the gazebo. Three parolees who were members of another gang, the El Cajon Dukes, arrived and attempted to mingle with the group of Southeast Locos. Among the group of El Cajon Dukes were twins, Paul and Peter Truong. They got into a confrontation with Medina and Bernal, who was known as “Bandit.” A fight broke out and both twins were shot. Peter was shot several times but lived. Paul lay facedown and begged for his life before Bernal allegedly executed him. Four types of casings were found at the scene: two from 9mm handguns, one from a .32-caliber handgun, and one from a .40-caliber handgun. An unidentified motorist dropped off both of the Truongs at a nearby hospital. Paul was shot in the sternum, though it was a shot to the heart that killed him. Police said that Peter initially declined to give them information about a possible motive or the location of the shooting. However, there were many witnesses to the murder.
One witness, Frank Mariscal, was a friend of the Truong twins. Mariscal said he was at his aunt’s house that day because she had just died. Mariscal picked up Peter and Paul to go to Hospitality Point. Mariscal testified during Medina’s trial that a fight soon erupted. Mariscal said that he had blood on his face and that Peter and Paul were down on the ground. They drove to the hospital and then Mariscal fled.
Just after midnight on June 17, 2001 — after his testimony in Medina’s murder trial — Mariscal was shot in the chest and killed at an apartment complex on Broadway near Ballantyne Street in El Cajon. He had been visiting a friend when several people began arguing outside the apartment, El Cajon police said. Timothy Haman, 23, of El Cajon, was arrested and booked on a homicide charge. Police did not believe Mariscal’s death was linked to his testimony in the Hospitality Point murder. One person who saw Mariscal testify, and who wished to remain anonymous, said she was not at all surprised that he was shot.
“He was a bad guy,” she told me. “A real shit. Lots of people probably wanted him dead.”
Lennette Williamson, who was 17 at the time of the Hospitality Point shooting, testified that she arrived at the bonfire at 11:30 p.m. and a fight was going on. She said she saw “Bandit” (Bernal) shooting at one of the Truongs. Bernal was saying, “Yo, see here, fool.” The victim, meanwhile, was yelling, “It hurts, fucking quit it.” Williamson saw the shooter pull the trigger six or seven times. The victim was saying, “It hurts. Stop. I’m sorry.”
Robert Simon also testified about the shooting. He saw Truong get shot in the head and later identified Bernal in a lineup. In return for his testimony, the prosecution provided Simon with witness relocation for his protection.
Another witness, Justin Bell, was standing next to Bernal when Bernal allegedly hit a guy over the head with a beer bottle. According to Bell, Bernal then grabbed a gun from his back and started firing. He was shooting at several people and seemed to be enjoying it, Bell said.
Matthew Boyd was a friend of Bernal’s brother. At a gathering days after the shooting, Boyd said he heard Medina refer to the shooting and say, “I have to blow people’s heads off when I get in gunfights.”
The case against Medina and Ruben “Bandit” Bernal was built on witness testimony, phone records, ballistics, and the results of police investigations. During January 2000 a police task force diligently tracked the path of two guns — an AK-47 and a 9mm semiautomatic handgun — that left telltale shell casings at the scenes of at least four killings. They had suspected members of the Southeast Locos and were tracking Medina and his associates. On January 29 investigators caught a break when police spotted Medina’s green Honda Civic traveling erratically on the 1800 block of Garnet Avenue in Pacific Beach. Medina and Bernal were pulled over for speeding. The 1999 Honda was registered in the name of Dorothy Johnson, Medina’s mother. One officer at the scene stated that the inside of the car smelled like a brewery. Bernal was driving and was arrested for driving under the influence. Medina consented to a search of his car. In the trunk cops found holsters, gun-cleaning equipment, and eight guns — six handguns, a rifle, and a shotgun. Medina and Bernal spoke in the back of the police cruiser, but the tape of that conversation was later dismissed from evidence. After being arrested for gun violations, Medina made bail, but in the following days ballistics tests linked some of the weapons to some of the shootings. Two guns matched casings found at the scene of the Hospitality Point incident — a 9mm registered to Medina and a .40-caliber handgun registered to a onetime Southeast Loco named “Bullet.”
Almost a month later, on February 25, 2000, Medina and Bernal went downtown to the San Diego Police Department headquarters to retrieve the guns and were arrested on suspicion of murdering Vasquez, Vega, and Paul William Truong. They were also suspected in the Hector Martinez murder. Medina, who lived at the time with his mother in Bonita, was reportedly clean-cut when he was arrested. He was wearing his work clothes — a coat and tie. At the same time, 240 agents, officers, and detectives from 12 law enforcement agencies served search warrants at 14 locations around the county and arrested 15 fellow gang members or associates for parole and probation violations. The task force seized eight other weapons, including automatic handguns, sawed-off shotguns, and revolvers during the sweeps, which began simultaneously at about 7:00 a.m. Both Medina’s and Bernal’s homes were searched. Eleven Southeast Loco properties were also searched.
That same day Jose Manuel Astorga, or “Woody,” gave a statement to police that he had overheard some Southeast Locos saying that they had “unloaded on some El Cajon Dukes.” Astorga said that he had met Medina and Bernal at the Love Shack, a gang hangout. He said he had brought an 18-pack of MGD and that Happy (Medina) and Bernal had brought a bottle of tequila and a big bottle of Presidente brandy. They were all doing shots. Astorga said that Medina seemed happy about the shootings. According to Astorga, Medina said that the Dukes had made the mistake of shaking hands in the wrong way, thus giving away their gang affiliation. Astorga added that Medina was drinking tequila and beer and bragging about shooting some “Chinos” at the beach. Happy laughed when he told the story, Astorga said. Investigators wrote down Astorga’s version of events: “At the beach and nearby were some Lords, Old Town National City, and El Cajon Dukes. Some Locos and Dukes (Paul) shook hands, but Paul wouldn’t let go, which was seen as a challenge to Bernal. The Chinos then took their shirts off. Medina then said that he started to unload on the Chinos. The witness said that Medina got so excited telling the story that he scared the witness.”
On February 26, 2000, police placed Medina in a lineup. Alina Jefferies identified him as her assailant. Investigators matched .380 casings at the scene of the Jefferies and Cruz shooting with casings found at the site of the Hector Martinez murder.
Three days later police charged Medina with the murders of Martinez and Truong and with the assault on Alina Jefferies. They also began an investigation into his connection with the murders of Adam Vasquez and Victor Vega. Deputy District Attorney Colin Murray said that Medina and Bernal were suspects in that case and that ballistics tests pointed to them, though not enough evidence had been gathered to file charges. (They were later charged in the murders.) At this time prosecutors entered controversial rap tapes into evidence for the first time. Medina, investigators said in court, had made rap recordings in which he boasted of shooting people. Murray told reporters that on the tape Medina “recounts some of the shootings he committed with his gang.”
Medina’s family retained attorney Thomas Warwick Jr. for his defense. Warwick is one of San Diego’s most prominent defense attorneys. He is a director of the San Diego County Bar Association and a member of the Judicial Council of California. When Alicia Pfingst, the sister of San Diego’s district attorney Paul Pfingst and an employee of the DA’s office, was arrested in April 1999 for two counts of driving under the influence, she hired Warwick to defend her. As further evidence of the respect that Warwick commands in local legal circles, he was hired to defend Kent Hoflen in October 2000. Hoflen, a detective in the San Diego Police Department’s domestic violence unit, was arrested on September 21, 2000, for soliciting a prostitute during an undercover sting operation by the El Cajon Police Department.
In front of Superior Court judge Richard Hanscom, both Medina and Bernal pleaded not guilty to murder charges. The courtroom was full of the defendants’ family and friends. Several other suspects also pleaded not guilty, including David Bury, 23; Julio Aguilar, 23; Rafael Hernandez, 20; and Michael Sierra, 19. Murray said he would be filing allegations against Medina and Bernal that could lead to the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole if they were convicted. Judge Hanscom ordered Medina and Bernal held without bail. Bury, Aguilar, Hernandez, and Sierra were each ordered held on $1 million bail.
So the district attorney’s office arraigned and charged Medina with:
Count one: the murder of Hector Martinez on June 21, 1996 (also charged were David Bury and Julio Aguilar).
Count two: the murder of Paul Truong on November 6, 1999 (also charged was Ruben Bernal).
Count three: the attempted murder of Peter Truong on November 6, 1999.
Counts four and five: the attempted murder of Rafael Cruz and Alina Jefferies on January 24, 1997 (also charged was David Bury).
Count six: the negligent discharge of a firearm at the Tangens’ party on October 29, 1994.
On March 24, 2000, the preliminary exam for Medina, Bernal, and Bury was continued to June 13, 2000, and a discovery motion was set for May 17, 2000. The trial was assigned to Judge John Thompson.
On May 10, 2000, there was some legal wrangling in court over the withholding of witness addresses. Over 50 people witnessed all the crimes, and Warwick asked the court for their names, addresses, and copies of their statements. Medina promised the court that there were no safety issues as far as the witnesses were concerned. But after the Hospitality Point murder, two associates of Medina’s, Eduardo and Jesus Garcia, visited Robert Simon, a witness, and told him to keep quiet. On May 17 the court ruled that the witnesses did not have to supply the defense with their addresses. In the end, most of the witnesses opted not to share the information.
During the discovery in May the defense team asked the court to let the suspects dress in street clothes in order to avoid the stigma of having to wear prison clothes in front of a jury. Judge Thompson granted the request. Also in May, David Bury joined the discovery, meaning he would cooperate with prosecutors. On July 11 Bury pleaded guilty to charges relating to the murder of Martinez and the assault on Jefferies and Cruz and was convicted.
Ultimately the prosecution provided the defense with 900 pages of discovery evidence including crime scene reports, autopsy reports, ballistics, and witness statements. Medina asked for the criminal records of the witnesses and urged the prosecution to investigate their backgrounds.
On May 11 Julio Aguilar pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and offered to testify in the Martinez case in exchange for leniency. As is usual in these cases, the prosecution requested that Aguilar’s three prior criminal convictions be sanitized so that he would appear to the jury as a more reliable witness.
The rap tapes came up in court again on May 17. The prosecution objected to having to share copies of the tapes with the defense, but the judge insisted that Medina’s team had a right to listen to the tapes. Also, Medina’s defense requested that the judge set bail for him. The judge denied the request.
On June 6, 2000, Medina was indicted on nine counts:
Count one: the murder of Hector Martinez on June 21, 1996.
Count two: the attempted murder of Jose Martinez on June 21, 1996.
Count three: the murder of Adam Vasquez on September 10, 1999.
Count four: the murder of Victor Vega on September 10, 1999.
Count five: the attempted murder of Anthony Lam on September 10, 1999.
Count six: the attempted murder of Matthew Malosi Iuli on September 10, 1999.
Count seven: the attempted murder of Matthew Acosta-Mesa on September 10, 1999.
Count eight: the murder of Paul Truong on November 6, 1999.
Count nine: the attempted murder of Peter Truong on November 6, 1999.
On June 30 Dorothy Johnson, Medina’s mother and an attorney at the San Diego law firm of Post, Kirby, Noonan and Sweat, made a request to join her son’s defense team. Two months later, Doug Brown, a San Diego attorney, replaced Thomas Warwick as Medina’s lawyer. “I was appointed by the court,” Brown explained to me. “Tom Warwick defended him initially, but the case expanded when they added some murder charges, and some financial considerations came into play as well. So he had to get off the case and I was appointed.”
Brown has recently attracted some national attention for his defense of James Parker, 16, of Chelsea, Vermont. Parker is one of two boys accused in the stabbing deaths last January 27 of Half and Susanne Zantop, two Dartmouth College professors.
I asked Brown about what role Medina’s mother played in her son’s defense.
“What she did was assist the defense,” he said. “She was of great help in the review of documents, the organization of documents, and the review of the discovery materials. There were hundreds and hundreds of videotapes and audiotapes that she helped review as well.”
I asked Brown if Dorothy assisted the defense with a mother’s eye or a lawyer’s eye. “I’m sure a little bit of both,” he responded. “She didn’t participate in court or in the trial, but she assisted in putting our case together.”
In early 2001 Medina’s case was still going through discovery motions. On January 3, 2001, Giselle Serrano, a witness to Hector Martinez’s murder who had made statements implicating Medina, told the judge that she had received threats. The prosecution explained that they had evidence that some Southeast Locos might put a “green light” on her. They also presented evidence that more witnesses possibly had been intimidated by jailed Southeast Locos.
On March 1 and 2 investigators interviewed a man named William (or Guillermo) Inzunza who had known Medina since the seventh grade. Police were interested in Inzunza because a gun found on Medina and traced to the Hospitality Point shooting was registered in his name. The Navy had confirmed that Inzunza was at sea at the time of the murder, but Inzunza told police that in 1999 he had bought the gun — a .40-caliber Sig Sauer — at a Del Mar gun show. He said that he had given the gun to Medina.
Inzunza also said that he had been in the Southeast Locos from 1992 to 1995. He explained in his statement that when he was in the gang, there were 80 to 100 members. They hung out around 26th and Market in Sherman Heights, he said. Inzunza also had information about the rap tapes that police had discovered in Medina’s home around the time he was arrested. Inzunza suggested that they had been made between 1993 and 1994, when Medina was at Hilltop High School. The songs, Inzunza explained, were an “old school” type of rap, and the lyrics came from rumors that circulated in the neighborhood. On one of the tapes, Medina raps over music by bands such as N.W.A. and mentions repeatedly a guy named Casper, who investigators speculated was the ghost of someone Medina may have killed.
In April, Medina’s defense team argued that the rap tapes shouldn’t be entered into evidence. They maintained that the tapes were made when Medina was in high school, before the murders occurred, and thus had no bearing on the case. The prosecution rebutted, arguing in a written statement, “Gang rap tapes are extremely relevant to prove motive and intent to kill.”
On May 11, 2001, the prosecution summed up its case against Ruben Bernal. The two cases were remarkably similar. Bernal, a friend of Medina’s from Chula Vista and a fellow Southeast Loco, was charged in some of the same crimes. He was also a seemingly upstanding member of his community. Bernal was an honors student at Southwestern Community College and, like Medina, was drawn to social justice issues. He counseled teenagers at Palomar High School as a paid employee of the Gang Risk Intervention Program, a program run by the San Diego County Office of Education. The program operates in 11 San Diego County schools and provides mentoring, tutoring, counseling, field trips, and alternative activities to at-risk students.
The prosecution argued that Bernal was also a gangster nicknamed “Bandit,” who allegedly grinned as he killed Paul Truong at Hospitality Point and bragged about the murder several months later. Bernal’s attorney, David Bartick, claimed that prior to the murder his client had reformed, renounced his membership in the Southeast Locos, and had nothing to do with the killing.
Bartick, like Warwick, is a high-profile San Diego defense attorney. Earlier this year he defended David Frediani, a former financial analyst charged with strangling Del Mar dna researcher Helena Greenwood in 1985. Police suspected that Frediani killed Greenwood to prevent her from testifying against him. At the time of the murder, Frediani was out on bail and awaiting trial for sexually assaulting the scientist in San Mateo County in 1984. He was convicted of the rape and served three years, but prosecutors had no conclusive evidence linking him to Greenwood’s death until 14 years after the murder. In 1999, when new genetic tests implicated Frediani in the killing, he was arrested. On March 19, 2001, he was sentenced to life in prison.
During Bernal’s trial, Bartick blamed Paul Truong’s killing on Medina. But during the closing arguments, prosecutor Jeff Dusek cited testimony that Bernal had fired the fatal shots. A witness identified him in court as the shooter, saying Bernal smiled just before opening fire. Dusek also cited the testimony of Jose Manuel Astorga, the witness who had drunk tequila and brandy with Medina and Bernal at the Love Shack. Astorga was the one who claimed that the two had bragged about the shootings. During the trial, prosecutors argued that Medina had fired the shots that wounded Paul’s twin brother Peter. Bartick rebutted that Astorga was too drunk to remember the conversation accurately. He also argued that other witnesses were unreliable, noting that several had been unable to pick Bernal out of lineups and had given contradictory statements to police. Bartick said Bernal went to great lengths to remove himself from gang life, even going so far as to have several gang-related tattoos removed.
“The mistake he made was to socialize with these individuals,” Bartick told the jury.
On May 22 the judge declared a mistrial in Bernal’s case after the jurors announced that they were hopelessly deadlocked on whether he had killed Paul Truong. The jurors, who deliberated for over a week, split 8 to 4 in favor of conviction. Bernal was tried again last month, and the day after Christmas Judge Thompson declared a second mistrial. This time the jury deadlocked 11 to 1 in favor of conviction. Bernal is being held without bail while Dusek plans a third trial.
The day after the first mistrial, jury selection began in Medina’s case. On May 30 Jeff Dusek made his opening arguments in San Diego Superior Court; he accused Medina of killing Martinez, Vasquez, and Vega and aiding and abetting in the murder of Truong. He told jurors that Medina is “a remarkable individual — someone who will shatter your stereotypes about what gangsters are all about.” He told the jury that Medina had recorded an album in which he rapped about “putting fools to sleep” and “shooting tokers in the head.”
In one song, Dusek said, Medina sang, “Say the last word before you’re doomed / And watch your family cry at the funeral soon.”
In court Doug Brown acknowledged before the jurors that his client had associated with a Chula Vista gang since high school, even doing a film on gang life as a college project. But he also argued that Medina had never shot anyone. He said that the prosecution was relying on witnesses who had constantly changed their stories or been pressured by police to make damning statements. Medina’s arsenal of weapons — including an AK-47 and a shotgun — was legally owned, Brown said.
Testimony in the case began on May 31. In June a stream of witnesses testified against Medina, linking him to the murders and the attempted murders. The prosecution read Astorga’s statement, and Julio Aguilar testified that Medina, or “Happy,” was the most respected member of the Southeast Locos because he was “trigger happy.” He said that Happy got his name because he always smiled and that Bandit got his name because he was always stealing cars. Aguilar added, “Come nighttime [Medina] would go blast, be with the homeboys. Come daytime he would go lift weights.” Another witness testified that Medina boasted about carrying a semiautomatic handgun to work in a briefcase. The witness said that the weapon “made him feel comfortable, knowing that he was strapped.”
The defense would later point out that many of the witnesses had come to court from prisons and juvenile detention facilities in Denver, San Diego, Alpine, Chino, Ventura, and Vista.
On June 14 the prosecution played the rap tapes for the jury. Aguilar explained that Medina made the tapes with a “kindergarten recorder.” He would add to the tapes, Aguilar said, after certain incidents, but some of the songs were make-believe. Brown urged the jurors not to jump to the conclusion that Medina was a bad guy because of the tapes.
“They’re stupid and they’re awful, but they’ve got nothing to do with this case,” Brown argued.
On July 3, 2001, after six days of jury deliberation, Medina was convicted on four counts of first-degree murder and five counts of attempted murder. His sentencing was scheduled for August 1.
Brown asked for a new trial on the grounds that the jury should not have been allowed to hear the rap tapes because Medina made them in high school, well before the killings. Brown also argued that testimony against Medina came from felons, gang members, and people “working off criminal beefs.” Brown submitted the sentencing document that included the letters written by family, friends, employers, and professors. Nevertheless, Judge Thompson sentenced Medina to nine consecutive life terms plus 156 years.
Brown told me in early November that the case is on appeal. “We will raise the lawfulness of the search of Mr. Medina’s car, the lawfulness of admitting tapes of rap music, and whether or not the counts should have been severed and tried separately,” he explained. “The appeal will go before the Fourth District Court of Appeal; it probably won’t be heard before a year. We’re certainly hopeful that the appeal will give him some relief.
“Our main theory as a defense,” Brown added, “was that Medina conceded he had joined a gang as a young boy and had some bad associations. But he maintained throughout the case that he hadn’t participated in any of the homicides and that he didn’t shoot anyone. He said other gang members committed the shootings. What complicated our case was the fact that so many of the prosecution witnesses, both before trial and during trial, lied. There were a huge number of inconsistent and contrary stories by a large number of the witnesses. This made it difficult to wade through what was true and what was false. Many of the witnesses were involved in the homicides themselves and were either lying to protect themselves from criminal prosecution or lying to avoid charges in other cases. What was unusual about this case, of course, is that David Medina is in many respects a brilliant young man with a tremendous future. It’s very sad that he got drafted into this way of life. He was a perfect gentleman with me at all times; he was, and is, very intelligent. From my interaction with him, I don’t believe that he is the type of individual to shoot anyone.”