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January 18, 2021

Decision in Michael Escobar trial expected soon

SANTA CRUZ—After Santa Cruz County Assistant District Attorney Johanna Schonfield displayed for a jury a photo of 4-year-old Jaelyn Zavala dying from a bullet wound – and as jurors and the girl’s family members wept at the sight – she turned to the man accused of shooting her.

“He did this,” Schonfield said of Michael Escobar, who is accused of gunning down a rival gang member, and Jaelyn in the crossfire, on Oct. 14, 2014 outside the Valley Inn on Main Street in Watsonville.

He has been in custody in Santa Cruz County Jail since.

Escobar, clad in a suit and tie, displayed no emotion, sitting impassively throughout the daylong hearing.

Schonfield, and defense attorney Jay Rorty, were presenting their closing arguments Monday, which are expected to wrap up on Tuesday morning.

Escobar, 36, faces life without parole if convicted of two first-degree murder charges, along with gang and weapons charges.

Schonfield says that Escobar is guilty of premeditated murder. This is proven, she said, by the fact that Escobar – who was drinking that night at the Fish House restaurant with several of his associates – saw that a rival gang member was at the nearby hotel. He then left with fellow gang member Marcos Robles and came back later with guns and body armor.

The pair then laid in wait to ambush Ramon Rendon, a known Sureño gang member who had been living and working at the Valley Inn.

Rendon, 33, reportedly was the intended target in the attack, which is believed to be gang-related. He died from several gunshots.

Robles faces trial next year on the same charges.

Surveillance video showed several different angles of coverage as Escobar and his fellow gang members came and went, took up position in the parking lot, confronted Rendon and then staged an attack. Escobar and Robles are also shown in video running from the scene moments before Watsonville Police rushed in and caught up with Escobar.

Rorty claims that Escobar was so drunk from a night of partying with his associates that he could not have formed specific intent to kill.

He pointed to evidence that he defecated in his pants in the hours following the shooting, ran the wrong way during his escape from the motel parking lot and ranted belligerently at police during interviews.

As such a lesser charge of second-degree murder for both Rendon and Jaelyn is appropriate, Rorty said.

Escobar and Robles are believed to have committed the crime with Gilberto Ponciano, Roberto Ramirez and Juan Cruz. All three were sentenced in February 2018 to state prison after being convicted of assault with a deadly weapon and voluntary manslaughter. They were also convicted of promoting a criminal street gang, jail records show.

This story will be updated.


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