Ira Deschene said his family does not condone gang violence. That includes his niece, Mae Johnson.

But on July 6, Johnson was one of the passengers in a dark SUV that drove past 7-year-old Maria Del Carmen Menchaca's house. One of the other juveniles in the vehicle fired one shot from the automobile, striking the little girl who was playing on the sidewalk in front of her street, killing her.

"She's very remorseful. She hasn't eaten. She's breaking down and crying every time she talks about it," Deschene said of his niece. "She has a 6-year-old brother. She couldn't imagine the same thing happening to him. We don't condone gang violence or any type of gang activity."

Johnson, who had just turned 16 the day before the shooting, was arrested and booked into juvenile detention along with Gabriel Magallon and Tiona Vigial, who are also both 16, for investigation of first-degree felony murder. Frank Benavidez, 20, was arrested and booked into the Salt Lake County Jail for investigation of the same charge. The Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office was scheduled to begin review potential charges in the case this week.

Deschene, who lives on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona, said Johnson lives in Glendale with her mother and five siblings. She is the oldest of her brothers and sisters.

Johnson's mother has contacted Menchaca's family to offer her condolences, he said. Now, they are hoping the two people charged for the shooting are Benavidez and Magallon, the suspected driver and shooter.

Police have called the shooting the result of an ongoing dispute between rival gangs and say those involved were all documented gang members.

But Deschene contends his niece was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. She and the other suspects all live close to each other and just around the corner from Menchaca's house, he said. On July 6, Johnson asked Benavidez for a ride to the store. She knew the two other teens in the car, he said.

"(Benavidez) said he wanted to take a detour to take care of some business first," Deschene told the Deseret News.

When the shot was fired, Deschene said his niece wanted to get out of the SUV but was afraid she would get shot if she did.

"She was scared," he said. "She wasn't directly involved in the shooting."

She was also afraid to tell police about what happened because of fear of retaliation, he said.

Now, Deschene said his family is trying to work out a deal with prosecutors to have Johnson testify against the two males in the case.

"By all means, please prosecute them to the fullest extent," Deschene said of the alleged driver and gunman. "We don't condone that type of violence, especially when the life of a young child is lost. There needs to be closure for not only our family but Maria's family and for herself. We feel really bad. A life was lost. We're trying to do the right thing for Maria's family and for ours.

"She's a really sweet little girl. It's unfortunate she's been caught up in this deal. I'd hate to see her go down with everyone else," he said.


E-mail: preavy@desnews.com