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Norteno Gang Member Convicted In 2012 Drive-By Shooting Death Of Man Walking With Friend

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A Santa Cruz County Superior Court jury convicted a man of first-degree murder Wednesday in the 2012 drive-by shooting death of man walking with a friend in the Aptos area, a prosecutor said.

The jury found Christopher Bermudez Herrera, 23, guilty of slaying 21-year-old Fernando Mendoza-Avila, a crime for which two of Herrera's accomplices have also been convicted, Deputy District Attorney Jason Gill said.

Jurors deliberated for five hours before rendering the guilty verdict on the murder charge and special allegations that Herrera carried out the murder for the benefit of a criminal street gang and personally fired the gun that killed Mendoza-Avila, Gill said.

Herrera, whose trial started on Oct. 20, now faces up to 50 years to life in state prison at a sentencing hearing set for January 16, according to Gill.

After the verdict was read, members of the jury remained outside the courtroom and offered emotional support to Mendoza-Avila's mother and younger sister, who expressed gratitude to them and to prosecutors, Gill said.

On May 30, 2012 at about 6 p.m., Mendoza-Avila was walking to his home in Aptos on the Freedom Boulevard overcrossing over state Highway 1 with a friend following a visit with relatives, according to the sheriff's office.

A four-door Honda with three suspects inside then drove by the two men and Herrera, a member of the Norteno street gang, fired a .22 caliber semi-automatic handgun at Mendoza-Avila. He died at the scene, prosecutors said.

Herrera apparently mistook the victim for a member of a rival gang, Gill said.

"They murdered him because of the clothing he wore," Gill said.

Sheriff's deputies that night tracked the Honda down to Watsonville, where they arrested one of the suspects, 21-year-old Alfredo Garcia, of Prunedale, on suspicion of murder, gun and gang-related charges.

Herrera and the other suspect, Rafael Barron, had fled from the car that evening but deputies arrested them later, according to prosecutors.

Prior to the shooting, Garcia handed Herrera the gun and Barron picked up the ammunition magazine for the firearm and gave it to Herrera, who then shot the victim, Gill said.

Garcia, driver of the Honda, and Barron, the other passenger in the car, both gave statements to law enforcement identifying Herrera as the shooter, according to Gill.

Garcia and Barron have pleaded guilty to their participation on the murder and will be sentenced at separate future hearings. Garcia is to receive a sentence of 40 years in prison and Barron will get 20 years, Gill said.

While Herrera was a member of the Norteno gang, prosecutors consider Garcia and Barron to be "gang participants," he said.

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