Thursday, December 9, 2010
Court of Appeal Upholds Convictions in Maple Market Murders
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The Court of Appeal for this district has affirmed the convictions and life-without-parole sentences of two men for the 2006 murder of the co-owner of the Maple Market in Los Angeles.
There was sufficient evidence to find both Christian Vega and Steven Cuellar of first degree murder with special circumstances of robbery and burglary, and to find as an additional special circumstance that Cuellar acted on behalf of a street gang, Justice Richard Mosk wrote Tuesday for Div. Five.
Sam Khalil, one of the owners of the market, identified Cuellar as the person who argued with his brother, Simon Khalil, and demanded money. Sam Khalil said he was calling 911 from a restaurant next door when he heard a gunshot, ran in, and found his brother shot.
Simon Khalil died in surgery. Other evidence, including surveillance video, showed that before he was shot, he had been in an argument about a check, which apparently had been stolen from the business it was drawn on.
Several checks stolen from that business had been cashed at the Maple Market and subsequently dishonored by the bank. A witness, Nathaniel Barnes, said he saw two men near the Maple Market just before the shooting, and that one of them had a backpack, sticking out of which was the butt end of a shotgun.
From a photograph, Barnes identified the other man as Oscar Olloqui, whom police linked to the stolen checks. An investigation into the checks led to suspicion that Cuellar was involved, and a search of his bedroom led to the discovery of a shotgun, a handgun and ammunition, as well as a baseball cap that appeared similar to one worn by a person depicted in a surveillance tape cashing one of the stolen checks.
Police, who knew that Vega, Olloqui, and Cuellar were part of the Playboys gang, interviewed Vega, who, after denying involvement, said that he went to the market with Olloqui, and that they had gone there together several times in order to cash checks; that they saw Cuellar, who suggested they get someone else to cash a check; and that they then picked up another gang member, who had a shotgun in his backpack, and went back to the market.
The plan, he said, was either to cash a check or, if the market would not cash it, to commit robbery. Cuellar and the man with the shotgun went into the store, Vega said, then ran out, with Cuellar shouting either “He shot him” or “I shot him.”
The four of them drove away, with Olloqui driving.
Cuellar, after the police searched his bedroom, admitted that he was a member of the 51st Street gang, part of the Playboys. He admitted that he was the man in the photograph that was seized.
He admitted carrying a gun that was given to him by Olloqui, and that he shot Khalifa after an argument about the check he tried to cash.
The defendants were tried before separate juries, so that both defendants’ statements could be introduced. Vega did not testify, but Cuellar did, claiming that he was home with his 14-year-old sister—who corroborated the alibi—at the time of the shooting and that he confessed only because the detective threatened to arrest his mother and have his sisters taken away if he didn’t.
The detective testified on rebuttal, denying the claims. Both juries found the defendants guilty of murder, burglary, attempted robbery, and forgery.
Judge Lance Ito sentenced both defendants to life imprisonment without parole for murder and imposed consecutive terms on the other counts.
Mosk, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the evidence, including Barnes’ testimony, was sufficient to establish the guilt of both defendants, despite Vega’s denial that he was there for a criminal purpose. The contention that Barnes was not credible because he was a drug user with a significant criminal history was a matter for the jury to resolve, the justice said.
Ito, the justice said, did not abuse his discretion in allowing a gang expert to testify that, given the fact that all four of those involved were gang members and that the younger members were armed, the crime was committed as a form of gang activity. It is customary, the expert explained, for younger gang members to arm themselves, and to use their weapons if challenged, in order to impress the older members.
Mosk also said there was sufficient evidence to prove the gang-murder special circumstance.
The parties disputed whether it was necessary for the prosecutors to prove that Cuellar had prior knowledge of the gang’s criminal activity for the special circumstance to apply. But the issue did not have to be decided, Mosk said, because such knowledge could be found based on the expert’s testimony, the evidence that Cuellar had gang tattoos and that all of his cohorts were gang members, and his participation in the crimes at the market.
Attorneys on appeal were Charlotte E. Costan, by appointment, for Vega; Ralph H. Goldsen, by appointment, for Cuellar; and Deputy Attorney General Margaret E. Maxwell for the state.
The case is People v. Vega, B214726.
Copyright 2010, Metropolitan News Company