DOWNTOWN L.A. — Seated between his two lawyers in a Downtown Los Angeles courtroom on Tuesday for the first day of a trial that could result in the death penalty against him, William Vasquez, wearing a blue dress shirt with a tie hanging awkwardly past his waistline, looked nothing like the man in the mug shot that prosecutors repeatedly projected on a screen for the jury.
In the picture, taken five years ago on the day of his arrest, Vasquez was shown shirtless, the word “Eighteen” tattooed across his chest — a testament, prosecutors said, to his loyalty to the 18th Street gang, one of Los Angeles’ most notorious.
Vasquez is charged with five murders and three other shootings between 2002 and 2005, including the killing of two Santa Monica men during a party at the Moose Lodge on Ocean Park Boulevard in March of 2005.
The two men who were killed in that incident — Jonathan Hernandez, 19, and Hector Bonilla, 25 — were allegedly Santa Monica gang members, as was a third alleged Vasquez victim, Jesse Becerra, who was shot 20 times outside of house party near 21st Street and La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles, apparently for crossing into the 18th Street gang’s territory, prosecutors said.
On Tuesday, Deputy District Attorney Sarika Kim described Vasquez as a killer who sought to win respect and spread fear through the brutality of his crimes. In the Moose Lodge murders, the two victims were shot a total of 25 times, including several times in the back as they lay dying on the floor, she said. Becerra was shot nine times in the head from as close a range as two feet.
“That fear will be pervasive in this trial,” Kim told the jury, “and it will manifest itself in different ways.”
Some witnesses who earlier cooperated with investigators may not be willing to testify in open court. Others may back away from their previous statements about the crimes, she said.
Immediately after his arrest, Vasquez began boasting to police, Los Angeles Police Det. Jeff Hofmeyer, said on Tuesday.
According to Hofmeyer’s testimony, after being handcuffed Vasquez said, “I know you guys have been looking for me for a long time. Sh–, I’m the best … I know someone snitched on me … just remember, it’s your guys’ fault, somebody’s going to die.”
In their opening remarks, Vazquez’s attorneys urged the jury to question the credibility of the prosecution’s witnesses, many of whom gave inconsistent statements and have histories of criminal activity, they said.
John Daley, one of Vasquez’s lawyers, described a key prosecution witness as a regular informant for police in murder cases who “likes to get paid for what he does.”
Other witnesses, he said, were on drugs at the time of the alleged incidents.
The main physical evidence in the case, prosecutors said, will come in the form of expert testimony tying the bullets recovered from two of the crime scenes to the same gun.
Prosecutors also plan to argue that tattoos on Vasquez’s arms, including the words “Twinks Killa,” and “BK” — which allegedly stands for “Blood Killer” — are references to the defendant’s involvement in the gang motivated crimes he is accused of.
In the Moose Lodge killings, two other men, Jose Mojarro and Erick Nunez, were found guilty in March of last year on two counts of first-degree murder.
Mojarro is appealing his sentence of life without parole. Nunez is serving multiple life sentences, prosecutors said.
Hernandez, of Ocean Park, and Bonilla, of the Pico Neighborhood. were attending a private party at the Moose Lodge on 16th Street and Ocean Park Boulevard on the night of March 5, 2005, when Mojarro, Nunez and Vasquez allegedly showed up uninvited. An argument broke out between the men and Hernandez while they were at the bar, according to prosecutors.
Bonilla allegedly intervened in the fight before the shooting began.