A Modesto boy has been found guilty of walking up to an airport neighborhood taco truck and fatally shooting the owner in the face a year ago.
Judge Rubén Villalobos made the ruling Thursday that the juvenile killed 67-year-old Rafael Avila-Rodriguez, who was inside his taco truck next to the Airport Market on the evening of Feb. 16, 2021.
He also found true that the minor, who was just 13 at the time, acted intentionally and with premeditation and personally discharged a firearm. The defendant looked straight ahead and showed little emotion as the judge read the ruling.
Villalobos said that cumulatively, much of the circumstantial evidence presented by the prosecution proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the minor was the shooter.
That included video of the shooting, video that showed the juvenile defendant at a different market in the airport neighborhood four hours before the shooting, the clothing he was wearing, cell phone records of his activity in the area, and a photo of him holding a gun three days before the shooting.
The video that showed the shooting scene on Monterey Avenue was of poor quality but Villalobos said it showed the facial features of the shooter were consistent with those of the juvenile defendant. The Bee is not naming the boy because of his age.
Villalobos said he also found compelling that the jacket, undershirt and pants the minor was wearing at the time of his arrest were substantially similar to clothing he was wearing in the video. The minor was also seen wearing an LA Dodgers hat earlier in the day that “appeared to be identical” to one that was fell off the shooter’s head as he fled and was recovered by detectives at the scene.
According to testimony at the trial, the hat was tested for DNA but there was DNA from too many people on it for the Department of Justice, per their policy, to make a determination if one of them was the defendant.
While a gun was never recovered, the minor was seen in a TikTok video three days before the murder holding a Polymer 80 style gun that is consistent with slugs recovered at the scene. Villalobos considered this as well as cell phone data showing the minor was in the area before the shooting and testimony that he was picked up by his father ten minutes after the shooting.
Villalobos said he gave little credibility to a 16-year-old witness, whose statements both the defense and prosecution attempted to use to support their cases.
The prosecution alleged the boy was a second person seen across the street in the video of the shooting.
Modesto Police detectives interviewed the 16-year-old boy a few days after the homicide. He initially told investigators he was not with the defendant at the time of the shooting and expressed fear he could be harmed for talking to police.
The 16-year-old eventually told detectives that he was at the scene of the shooting and that the defendant told him he was going to do “a quick come up,” meaning a robbery.
But the 16-year-old later told a defense investigator and ultimately testified that he was not at the shooting scene. He did testify that the defendant told him earlier in the day that he planned to “do a quick come up” but that the two split up and he didn’t see him after that.
The 16-year old admitted to using cocaine, Xanax, and alcohol the night of the shooting and Villalbos said that during his testimony he was often incoherent and he appeared to perhaps be under the influence.
During testimony by the defendant’s father, it was revealed that he drove the 16-year-old to the office of defense attorney Alonza Gradford’s to be interviewed by the defense investigator about a month after the shooting. The father initially lied about driving the 16-year-old to the office.
“Both law enforcement and the defense utilized techniques during their respective interview of (the 16-year-old) that question the accuracy of the fruits of those interviews,” Villalobos said Thursday.
The defense had presented an expert witness who testified about coercive tactics used by the police. Villalbos said detective’s interview with the 16-year-old boy was “exactly the type of interview that was testified to by” the expert.
“While the court declines to comment on the lawfulness of the law enforcement interview of (the 16-year-old) — as that issue is not before the Court — the Court notes that the interview was without counsel, had coercive elements, rewarded responses consistent with the theory of the investigation, and gave no quarter to responses not consisted with the theory,” he said.
Deputy District Attorney Jon Appleby said during his closing arguments that the 16-year-old changed his testimony because he was afraid of the defendant and his family.
Villalobos said that is possible, but no evidence of that was presented at trial.
Villalobos said he questioned everything the defendant’s father testified to after he perjured himself on the stand about driving (the 16-year-old) to Gradford’s office. He said if the father lied about that trivial matter, why should he expect the father to tell the truth about crucial matters like alibi testimony regarding his son’s whereabouts before, during and after the shooting.
The motive presented by the prosecution for the shooting was robbery.
While Villalobos said while that was possible, what he saw in the video of the shooting did not strike him as a robbery, as only seven seconds elapsed from the time the shooter got to the order window of the food truck to the time the shot was fired.
“Rather, the video strikes of a completely senseless act of violence,” he said.
He said he’d anticipated he would hear “evidence of gang membership, that this was some type of initiation, an extortion consequence …” but nothing of that nature was presented as evidence.
Under California law, children under the age of 14 can only be prosecuted for a crime if there is “clear proof that at the time of committing the act charged against them, they knew its wrongfulness.”
Villalobos said the evidence was overwhelming that the minor knew that his actions were wrong. The minor evaded and deceived law enforcement, immediately ran from the scene after the shooting and hid the gun, the judge said.
As Villalobos made his ruling, a few of the defendant’s family members got up and left the courtroom.
To the defendant’s remaining family, Villalobos said, “I certainly can understand that may not be the verdict you wanted,” but reminded them that they had full appellate rights and that the juvenile court jurisdiction over the case ends when the minor turns 25, meaning he cannot be incarcerated on the case any longer than that.
The minor’s disposition, the juvenile court term for sentencing, will be determined at a later, yet-to-be-scheduled hearing.
At that hearing, family members of the victim will have the opportunity to give a statement to the court, Villalobos said. He told Avila-Rogriguez’s sister, who has attended every hearing, that he has heard how Avila Rodriguez died and now wants to know how he lived, what his passions were and who he was.
He said she can also give a statement to the Stanislaus County Probation Department, which will be considered by the court.
The incarceration time of a convicted juvenile offender is based on rehabilitation needs, not punishment, and is far less time than for an adult convicted of the same crime.
To the minor Villalobos said, “Once the disposition happens in this case, it is my greatest hope that you will avail yourself of the rehabilitative efforts that will be open to you. It is my hope that you do not spend a life incarcerated. It is my hope that you spend a life honoring yourself, your parents, and the life you took, that of Mr. Avila-Rodriguez.”