Tuesday, April 4, 2017



'They're going to kill me,' home invader tells judge
By Paulina Pineda
Nogales International 9 hrs ago (0)


Miguel Huerta Zuniga takes the stand during his sentencing hearing at Santa Cruz County Superior Court on Friday, March 31.
Huerta was sentenced to 10 years in state prison for first-degree burglary, a Class 2 felony, and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon in connection with a home invasion in January 2016.

While acknowledging that he committed a crime when he and several others broke into a home in Nogales last January to steal marijuana, Miguel Huerta Zuniga pleaded with Judge Thomas Fink to spare his life and not sentence him to prison after expressing fear that his co-defendants had put a "price on his head."

"I'm not even going to last a week," Huerta said during last Friday's sentencing hearing at Santa Cruz County Superior Court. "As soon as I hit the yard they're going to kill me."

Speaking during the hearing, defense lawyer Mark Willimann argued that the contents of a police report provided to the co-defendants singled out Huerta as a snitch. The contents were not discussed during the sentencing.

"It is those reports that have found themselves in prison, those reports that labeled this man a snitch, it is those reports that have put a price on his head," he said. "I ask the court, (considering) everything that we know, is a death sentence appropriate for Mr. Zuniga?"

Willimann asked Fink to suspend the prison sentence and instead sentence Huerta to a lengthy probation term. He argued that the court had the option to sentence Huerta to five years in prison, suspend 3.5 years, and give him credit for time served, which would still meet the terms of the plea agreement.

Huerta, 25, had previously pleaded guilty to one count of first-degree burglary, a Class 2 felony, and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, a Class 6 designated felony. As part of the plea agreement, Huerta could have faced between three to 12.5 years for the first-degree burglary offense.

Fink, however, argued that probation wasn't available under the plea, and that what Willimann was asking for was not a viable option under the plea deal as he understood it.

Deputy County Attorney Vanessa Cartwright added that if the judge were to consider anything other than a prison sentence, the state would move to withdraw from the plea deal.

Instead, Huerta was sentenced to 10 years in state prison and given credit for 418 days already served.

Peer pressure

After taking the witness stand during last Friday's sentencing, Huerta testified that on the morning of Jan. 28, 2016, he went to a home on West Wise Street in Nogales and smoked marijuana with one of the eventual victims of the home invasion. The man, Huerta said, gave him several samples of "high-quality marijuana," which he took back with him to a friend's house.

Once at the friend's house, Huerta said, the group smoked the samples he'd brought back. He said it was then that co-defendants Joe Leneer and Armando Ruiz Valencia devised a plan to break into the Wise Street home and steal the drugs.

Asked if he knew that morning that he'd be involved in a burglary later that day, Huerta said he had "no idea." He added that he was afraid to say no to participating in the break-in because Leneer and Ruiz were armed. The last time he objected to one of their plans, he said, his head was put in a bag and he was pistol-whipped.

Huerta said he and three others stormed the house. The group, he added, was wearing masks, police vests and were armed with rifles.

After hearing gunshots fired in the home, Huerta said he ran out of the house to one of the nearby getaway vehicles and drove off.

Willimann, who described Huerta as "soft spoken," "extremely polite" and "very intelligent," said Huerta was peer-pressured into participating in the home invasion.

"(Q)uite frankly, if Mr. Zuniga had his way, they would not be victims at his hand," Willimann said, adding: "But it really wasn't his hands, it was the hands of his co-conspirators. It was the hands of those that needed him to point out the way and go along with them because if he didn't, he would be suffering other consequences."

However, Cartwright argued that there was no evidence to support that Huerta was under duress or coercion at the time of the incident. She added that witnesses said he seemed relaxed and that he didn't seem "at odds" with his co-defendants.

She argued that after Huerta returned to his friend's house with the marijuana samples, the group held an impromptu meeting where they planned to steal the marijuana that they would then sell themselves.

"The only reason that this home invasion even occurred at the house that it did is because of him," she said. "His choice is what caused these people in this home to be victims of a very serious crime."

The assailants, she said, stormed the house and ordered several victims inside to lay on the floor.
One of the victims, who was holding a 2-month-old infant, was hit on the head with the muzzle of a long rifle after he refused to put the baby down.
While searching the home for drugs, which they didn't find, the suspects fired their weapons after they unexpectedly encountered someone in the back of the home.

Cartwright said some of the suspects returned to the home the next day looking for any evidence and guns left behind.
She added that police never recovered the guns or vests used in the attack.

Aggravated term

Cartwright asked the judge to give Huerta the maximum sentence of 12.5 years for the burglary count and two years for the assault count.

Instead, Fink sentenced him to the aggravated sentence of 10 years in prison for the burglary and 1.5 years for the assault, to be served concurrently. Because the crimes were designated as non-dangerous offenses, Huerta will be eligible for release after serving 85 percent of his sentence.

The judge also recommended that Huerta be placed in protective custody while in prison, but said he could not order the Arizona Department of Corrections to do so.

Leneer and Ruiz were previously sentenced in November for their involvement in the home invasion. Leneer was sentenced to 2.5 years in state prison for attempted weapons conduct, a Class 5 felony, while Ruiz was sentenced to six years in prison for a Class 4 felony weapons misconduct offense and five years probation for conspiracy to commit first-degree burglary.

Charges are still pending against the other four co-defendants. They include Gabriel Maldonado, Juan Ricardo Chaparro, Isaac Chaparro and Priscilla Coronado, who remains a fugitive after being released on her own recognizance last May after the court was unable to appoint her a lawyer.


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