Calling on an end to gang violence while at the same time sending a message that such violence won't be tolerated, Salt Lake District Attorney Lohra Miller today announced charges against one adult and two juveniles in connection with the drive-by shooting death of a 7-year-old girl.
Frank Benavidez, 20, and Gabriel Alvarez, 16, were each charged with aggravated murder and obstruction of justice in 3rd District Court. Because of the aggravated charge, Benavidez could be eligible for the death penalty if convicted. Miller declined Tuesday to say whether prosecutors would seek that sentence.
Because of his age, however, Alvarez is not eligible for the death penalty. He could get life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted.
Mae Johnson, 16, was also directly certified as an adult and charged in 3rd District Court with first-degree felony murder and obstruction of justice. If convicted, she could face 20-years to life in prison.
A fourth juvenile who was arrested shortly after the incident was determined not have participated or encouraged the shooting and was released from custody last week, Miller said.
Miller called the shooting death of the young girl an "act of senseless violence" and called for any potential retaliation in the neighborhood, and bloodshed in general, to end. Miller pleaded to let prosecutors deal with those responsible for Maria Del Carmen Menchaca's death.
"We will not tolerate any retaliation," she said.
Benavidez was the driver and Alvarez the shooter in Menchaca's murder on July 6 as she walked outside her house at 800 W. 1100 South, prosecutors say..
The shooting of Menchaca was the result of an on-going dispute between rival gangs, according to investigators.
Earlier in the day prior to the shooting, Benavidez drove to Menchaca's house, got out and yelled, "I'm going to kill you and your family," according to court documents. Johnson also got out of the black SUV and yelled obscenities at one of the juveniles at the house, court documents stated.
About 6:30 p.m. that evening, Maria, two other juveniles and an adult were walking on the sidewalk in front of the house when the adult looked down the street and saw the dark SUV authorities say was driven by Benavidez coming toward them. A person in the backseat, later identified as Alvarez, was wearing a blue bandana over his face and holding a firearm, court documents state.
The adult with the children yelled "run" and then heard a gunshot, according to court documents. Maria was struck in the chest and killed.
After Alvarez fired the shot, his gun jammed, prosecutors said. Alvarez took three bullets out of the weapon, handed them to Johnson who then gave them back to Alvarez so he could reload, according to court documents. The group then drove to a fellow gang member's house to hide the gun.
The drive-by shooting was orchestrated by Benavidez, according to court documents.
Because the shooting caused grave risk to several people, not just Maria, and because of a new law dealing specifically with homicide victims under age 14, both Benavidez and Alvarez were eligible to be charged with aggravating circumstances.
Although Johnson was not the shooter, she was "all for it," according to court documents because she was "tired of being disrespected" and gave Alvarez the gun which she had hidden in her house, according to court documents.
By handing the bullets back to Alvarez after his gun had jammed, fully knowing his intention was to re-load for the purpose of firing, Miller said Johnson both "actively encouraged and participated" in the drive-by shooting, thus making her eligible for an adult murder charge.
According to court records, Alvarez's juvenile criminal history, which became public after his charge in adult court, included misdemeanor arrests for alcohol possession, contempt, assault, home detention violation and destruction of property dating back to 2004.
Alvarez was first placed on home detention, placed in juvenile detention and was assigned to a non-residential community placement center at various times all in 2004, according to court records. He was admitted to an Observation and Assessment facility in 2005 and again placed in detention in 2005. He has spent over 500 days in juvenile detention, according to court records.
Johnson had no criminal history in 3rd District Juvenile Court.
Miller said she didn't struggle with the decision to charge the 16-year-olds as adults.
"We just won't tolerate this type of gang violence in our community," she said.
Salt Lake police Chief Chris Burbank attended today's press conference and called for better intervention to prevent gang violence. By the time gang members have loaded up the car and are on their way to commit a shooting, the time for intervention is long gone, he said.Intervention needs to begin in the neighborhoods and communities, he said. They are the best eyes and ears for law enforcement.