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Guilty pleas entered in fatal gang fight

MEDFORD — In a packed Jackson County Circuit Court room Friday morning, three young men admitted to participating in a gang fight in September that left a 24-year-old Central Point man dead.

Lucas Benjamin Molina, 19, Guibran Ramirez, 20, and Sergio Meza, 19, each pleaded guilty to two counts of attempted second-degree assault and a riot charge for their roles in a melee at an apartment complex in the 600 block of Beatty Street, Medford.

Each was sentenced to four and a half years in prison — 18 months for each charge — and two years of post-prison supervision.

They were the final three suspects to appear in court for their roles in the Sept. 15 fight that led to Marco Antonio Diaz's death.

Statements they signed in court outline what happened in the violent confrontation and note that the three, initially indicted on first-degree assault charges that would have carried longer sentences, cooperated with police and prosecutors.

"We were prepared to go to trial, but we got everybody to agree to this narrative," said David Hoppe, the deputy district attorney who prosecuted the linked cases.

Getting members from two Hispanic street gangs to agree to the same facts was a key to finding all those involved and holding them accountable, he noted. However, prosecutors also had video from a business near where the fight happened and physical evidence collected at the scene.

The statement describes how Diaz, Meza and Jose Salvador Banuelos-Mercado, 20 — all associated with a Sureño gang called the Southsiders — went to confront members of a Norteño gang called the Northsiders. They planned to seek out 19-year-old Manuel Enrique Castillo, who had stabbed Diaz's younger brother in January 2008 and spent 30 days in jail for the assault.

Dustin Michael Freeman, 22, dropped off Diaz, Meza and Banuelos-Mercado, all of whom had been drinking, at a KFC on McAndrews Road on the evening of Sept. 15. They walked to the Beatty Street apartments where Castillo lived.

When they arrived, members of the opposing gang yelled "Northside," and threw rocks and bottles at them, the statement says.

Banuelos-Mercado fled the confrontation, but Diaz and Meza stayed to fight, the statement says.

Diaz had a baseball bat and Meza was armed with a golf club and two knives, the statement says.

"When you show up at a gang fight with a weapon, you have agreed to it and it is mutual combat," Hoppe said, explaining that under the circumstances, the fighters couldn't claim they were defending themselves or their friends.

While Castillo and two other people stayed inside his apartment, locking doors and avoiding confrontation, four other Norteño associates joined the escalating confrontation, the statement says.

Mauricio Humberto Teran and Juan Antonio Gonzalez-Marquez, both just 14, joined Ramirez and Molina, who had been drinking and using drugs throughout the day, in fighting the Sureños, the statement says.

Ramirez carried a butcher knife to the fight, but dropped it when Meza hit him with a golf club. That knife was found at the scene of the fight, but forensic tests found no blood on it, prosecutors said.

Molina knocked Meza to the ground, sending a fillet knife clattering out of Meza's pocket, the statement says. Molina continued to hit Meza while he was on the ground, at one point opening a gash on the back of his head with the bat.

Teran, who had come to the fight with a baton, was fighting with Diaz when he picked up the fillet knife that had fallen from Meza's pocket. Teran stabbed Diaz twice in the chest, causing the wounds that proved fatal several hours later at Rogue Valley Medical Center, the statement says.

Prosecutors said that the bloody fillet knife also was found at the scene of the fight, which sprawled across an alley and parking lot, as well as in the apartment complex laundry room. DNA tests determined that the blood on the knife was from Diaz.

After being stabbed, Diaz ran with Ramirez and Gonzalez-Marquez in pursuit, the statement says. He fell to the ground and they punched and kicked him in the head and along his body.

In response, Meza rushed toward Ramirez with a pocket knife, slashing at him and causing a minor injury that didn't require treatment. Ramirez threw Meza to the ground.

Molina charged at Meza again with the bat, and Meza cut a deep slashing wound in Molina's abdomen, the statement said. Meza's stabbing of Molina and Ramirez was caught on surveillance video.

The Norteños then retreated. Meza tended to the fallen Diaz and attempted to carry him away, but then ran off, leaving him behind.

Teran also ran into the night. Gonzalez-Marquez went back into Castillo's apartment and Castillo and the two others inside came out to take Molina and Ramirez to Providence Medford Medical Center.

Neighbors called police to report the fracas just before 8 p.m. on Sept. 15. Paramedics treated Diaz and rushed him to Rogue Valley Medical Center, where he later died.

Molina underwent surgery at Providence, and hospital officials notified police of the stabbing. Ramirez fled before police arrived.

As the group returned to the Beatty Street apartment, they picked up Teran, who admitted to them that he had stabbed Diaz twice in the chest, the statement says.

Under the agreement reached with prosecutors, Meza, Molina and Ramirez were all willing to testify against Teran, the statement says.

Teran pleaded guilty March 17 to second-degree manslaughter for delivering the fatal blows. He was sentenced to up to 10 years of detention by the Oregon Youth Authority.

Gonzalez-Marquez pleaded guilty to second-degree assault and was sentenced to up to 10 years of detention by the Oregon Youth Authority.

On Friday, Meza pleaded guilty to attempted assault charges for knocking Meza to the ground and hitting him in the head with a baseball bat, then charging at him again with the bat. Ramirez's assault charges are linked to punching and kicking Diaz in the head after he had been stabbed and throwing Meza to the ground.

Meza's charges come from stabbing Molina and slashing Ramirez, court records show.

In sentencing each man, Barnack repeated that they could have faced much longer sentences if they had been found guilty at trial instead of cooperating with police and prosecutors and entering today's pleas.

"The state is being kind to you," Circuit Court Judge Tim Barnack told Meza, stressing that as a former prosecutor he believed that the cases should have gone to trial.

"I would give you more time if I could," Barnack told Molina in court.

"I don't want to see you again," Barnack said, pointing out that the actions Molina admitted were part of a fatal fight, making him partially responsible for Diaz's death, even if he didn't directly kill him.

"What you did was despicable," Barnack said to Molina, pushing the sullen young man to apologize.

Ramirez had prepared a statement offering his apologies and condolences to Diaz's family and the community.

"It wasn't our intention to cause a murder in our town," he said. "I hope I can get my life back on track."

Hoppe also read a statement from Ramirez's parents, offering their condolences to the Diaz family and asking for forgiveness for their son.

Meza was quick to tell the judge that he would strive to avoid future trouble.

"You won't see me again," he said.

The judge, prosecutors and police all stressed that gang activity would not be accepted and those involved would be held accountable.

"We don't tolerate gang activity or wannabes here," Barnack said.

Medford police Lt. Tim Doney, head of the Medford Area Drug and Gang Enforcement Team, said not only had the perpetrators been punished, but the case had pushed the community to respond with gang prevention and enforcement efforts.

"This tragedy has rallied community groups to stop this violence and keep this a great place to live," he said.

Reach reporter Anita Burke at 541-776-4485, or e-mail aburke@mailtribune.com.

Guilty pleas entered in fatal gang fight