A transplanted Los Angeles gang member is guilty of murdering an Arroyo Grande teen in a random drive-by shooting, a San Luis Obispo County jury determined Wednesday.
As a court clerk read the first verdict against Armando Yepez — guilty of first-degree murder — several members of victim Gabriel Salgado’s family burst into tears. The clerk then read the remaining verdicts — guilty on all counts — including attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon with enhancements for committing crimes as a gang member.
“I feel at peace,” Salgado’s mother, Anna Lopez, said afterward.
After playing football, Salgado and four friends were standing near an Oceano street corner Nov. 17, 2011, when Yepez slowly drove past and fired a “.38 special” handgun into the crowd. Salgado was killed, and another boy was hit in the legs with two bullets.
While detectives quickly suspected Yepez, whom they’d known from prior gang-related incidents, he wasn’t arrested until six months later. It was then that his friend, Henry Ramos, admitted to being in the car with him that night.
“Obviously, the big break in the case came when Henry Ramos confessed,” Deputy District Attorney Craig Van Rooyen said after the verdict.
While defense attorney Gerald Carrasco tried to cast doubt on Ramos’ statements to police, other evidence corroborated that Yepez was near the scene of the murder and had texted his brother about a gun. Gunshot residue was found in the car he drove, and he made incriminating statements to Ramos in a secretly recorded conversation.
“It was just good police work,” Van Rooyen said.
During the trial, Van Rooyen said Yepez was a member of the 18th Street gang in Los Angeles and was trying to send a message to local gang members by shooting someone in their territory. The jury’s conviction, he said, sends another message.
“The message needs to get out there that this can’t happen in this county,” Van Rooyen said. “Gabriel should be 18 and spending Christmas with his family.”
Prior to the verdict, about a dozen members of Salgado’s family — many of whom attended the entire trial — gathered in a circle outside the courtroom and prayed. Several wore memorial buttons and shirts with a photo of the teenager. After the emotional hearing, they hugged outside the courtroom.
“We got what we wanted,” a tearful Lopez said.
During the trial, some family members audibly gasped when a detective testified that Yepez smiled when shown a photo of Salgado, lying in the street, mortally wounded.
“It shows how cold-hearted he is,” Lopez said, noting that Yepez also showed no emotion as the verdicts were read. “It was heart-wrenching just to think about it. It was sickening.”
Even as rain fell after the verdict, the family planned to drive to the Arroyo Grande Cemetery, where the former high school senior is buried. But when Yepez returns to court for sentencing — a date has not yet been set — the family will return, Lopez said. If they offer statements, though, the focus will not be on Yepez, but rather the boy they affectionately called “Ears.”
“It’s all about Gabriel,” Lopez said. “It’s all about my baby.”