WATSONVILLE—Five years after Michel Escobar gunned down a rival gang member, and killed a young girl when one of his bullets went astray, a jury convicted him of two counts of first-degree murder and several special allegations.
Escobar, now 36, will likely be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole on Feb. 20, which Santa Cruz County Assistant District Attorney Johanna Schonfield said is the only possible outcome for the conviction.
Escobar sat passively when the verdict was read, showing no visible emotion. He did not testify during the trial, which lasted more than two months, Schonfield said.
Outside court, Schonfield called the conviction “bittersweet.”
“I can get a conviction, but it doesn’t bring the victims back,” she said. “The families are still suffering five years later. So I’m grateful to the jury for the decision they made, and I’m relieved. But it’s not a happy day. You saw the tears in their eyes.”
Schonfield praised the jury, which deliberated for one and a half days.
“I think they gave it the appropriate consideration,” she said. “They were very thorough, very diligent and I’m extremely grateful for the verdict they reached.”
In addition to first-degree murder charges, Escobar was also convicted of six special allegations, including gang participation, lying in wait, conspiracy, firearms allegations and resisting arrest.
The shooting occurred on Oct. 14, 2014 outside the Valley Inn on Main Street in Watsonville.
Escobar was drinking that night at the nearby Fish House restaurant with several of his associates, and saw that a rival gang member was staying at the hotel. Video surveillance footage showed him consulting with several of his associates, then leaving with fellow gang member Marcos Robles. They returned later with guns and body armor.
The pair then laid in wait to ambush Ramon Rendon, a known Sureño gang member who had been living and working at the Valley Inn.
Rendon, 33, reportedly was the intended target in the attack, which is believed to be gang-related. He died from several gunshots. A bullet entered the Fish House, striking 4-year-old Jaelyn Zavala and wounding the man who was holding her. Zavala later died.
Robles faces trial next year on the same charges.
Escobar’s attorney Jay Rorty claims that Escobar was so drunk from a night of partying that he could not have formed specific intent to kill.
He pointed to evidence that Escobar defecated in his pants after the shooting, ran the wrong way during his escape from the motel parking lot, Rorty said, and ranted belligerently at police during interviews. As such, Rorty was asking for a lesser charge of second-degree murder.
Schonfield scoffed at this assertion, describing it in her rebuttal as the “poopy pants defense.” She said that, if Escobar was that intoxicated, he would not have been able to jump five fences in his escape from the scene, and then fight two officers who came to arrest him.
Escobar is also charged with four bank robbery charges out of Santa Clara he allegedly committed with his fellow gang members in 2013-14, Schonfield said.
Escobar and Robles are believed to have committed the crime with Gilberto Ponciano, Roberto Ramirez, Juan Cruz and Brandon Martinez. Ponciano, Ramirez and Cruz were sentenced in February 2018 to state prison after being convicted of assault with a deadly weapon and voluntary manslaughter. They were also convicted of promoting a criminal street gang, jail records show.
Martinez still faces trial for his participation in the shooting.
Jury Foreman Ben Carter praised the law enforcement officers and the district attorney’s office for their role in the case.
“It was emotional, it was exhausting,” he said. “It was also fascinating to see how our legal system works.”
Watsonville Police Sgt. Eric Montalbo, who helped investigate the crime, called the verdict “just.”
“Justice was served, albeit delayed justice,” he said. “I hope this provides a small amount of solace for the Zavala and Rendon families.”