It has taken over 18 months, but arrests have finally been made in the murder of Matthew Toste who was gunned down in a downtown Santa Rosa parking lot in December 2006.
This killing has elevated concerns about the expansion of violent gang activity in Santa Rosa and the safety of the downtown area. It has also shown the increasing violence and criminal activity which has grown around Seventh Street since the opening of the Seven Ultra Lounge.
A criminal grand jury recently handed down indictments against five Santa Rosa men — Joseph Kenneth Lopez Sr., 39; his son, Joseph Kenneth Lopez Jr., 19; Paul Whiterock, 28; Nicholas Mejia, 30; and Raul Lopez-Granados, 20 — accusing them of murder, participating in a criminal street gang; conspiring to commit assault with a deadly weapon and other offenses.
If convicted on all counts, the five could end up spending the rest of their lives in prison.
It’s an encouraging development. The public has struggled to understand why it has taken such a long time to file charges in a killing that occurred in such a public place and with so many apparent witnesses on hand.
According to the indictment, all five men “talked about going to Club Seven Ultra Lounge that night to get retaliation against rival gang members for beating up Nico Mejia.” The indictment didn’t clarify the allegation, although police earlier said the men were waiting for rivals they knew were going to be leaving the Seven Ultra Lounge later that night. They were intending on attacking these rivals once they entered the parking lot to return to their cars.
However, that Saturday night, Toste, 32, a Santa Rosa father of a 5-year-old boy, had attended a company Christmas party at the Hyatt Vineyard Creek Hotel after which he and three others headed for Seven Ultra Lounge. Police say that after they parked at the Seventh Street parking garage, two women in his group were confronted by five gang members who made sexually provocative comments.
When one grabbed one of the women on the bottom, words were exchanged and punches were thrown. At one point, Toste reportedly cold-cocked Lopez Sr. That’s when someone — who police believe was Lopez Jr. — shot Toste twice in the chest.
Lopez Jr. and Whiterock were arrested as suspects within hours after the shooting, but they were later released.
The defendents are show below (click on a photo to see the full sized image):
Mejia said he was shot three times in the back of the right leg, all around the knee.
“I got shot three times in the back of the leg, walking away,” Mejia said.
“I’m a victim, too,” he said. “I didn’t even come with them. I came by myself in my own car. I was going to the club, but everybody goes to the club. It’s a small town.”
Santa Rosa Police homicide Sgt. Paul Henry confirmed Tuesday that Mejia was one of two defendants who were wounded by gunfire and that no one in the Toste party was armed.
The indictment accuses Lopez Jr. of firing the shots that killed Toste.
Henry declined to directly challenge or confirm most of what Mejia said, saying he didn’t want to damage the case as it heads toward trial.
Mejia said he was interviewed in the hospital, where police swabbed his hands in a test for gunshot residue. He also said police examined his car and apparently found nothing incriminating.
“I was never even being charged with this until this grand jury stuff came up,” he said. “I’m seeing all this stuff and they’re making me look guilty. They checked me for gun residue at the hospital, and there was none of that.”
Henry said Mejia’s explanations don’t square with evidence detectives have gathered.
“It sounds like the information he’s providing you is contrary to the information we’re working with,” he said, declining to be more specific. “It will come out at some point, if this case ever goes to trial. Or it will come out as not based in fact, if he pleads guilty.”
The indictment also accuses Lopez Jr., Lopez-Granados and Mejia of attempted murder in a Nov. 16, 2006, shooting. Mejia said he wasn’t involved in, and was never questioned about, that case.
The reason for the delay in the filing of charges will likely become more apparent as details of the case are released during trial. What’s important is that police investigators did not give up, and they deserve praise for vigorously pursuing this case until criminal indictments were secured.