Death penalty averted for three accused of gang murders

Cases proceed in largest prosecution made in San Mateo County history

Three accused gang members, including a Palo Alto woman, will not face the death penalty during their trials for the alleged murders of rival gang members, San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe has announced.

The district attorney's office will not pursue the death penalty for East Palo Alto residents Roberto Gabriel Bustos-Montes, 24,and Emmanuel Imani Hyland, 25, and Palo Altan Nina Cragg, 24, according to Wagstaffe. The defendants could still receive life in prison without parole if convicted of the capital murder charges.

On March 24, the district attorney's office indicted 16 people for a string of crimes that included multiple murders, attempted murders, gang felonies, firearm offenses and narcotics drug trafficking that occurred from September 2012 to December 2013. The violence was sparked between East Palo Alto and Menlo Park gangs when the Da Vill and Sac Street gangs teamed up against the Taliban, prosecutors said.

The "Operation Sunny Day" sweep by multiple law enforcement agencies was named after a code the gang members allegedly used to report a successful murder. Police said gang members would say, "It was a sunny day." The 18-month-long investigation is the most massive case prosecuted by the San Mateo County District Attorney's office in its history, Wagstaffe has said.

The investigation stemmed primarily from five murders and attempted murders, including the Oct. 5, 2012, murder of Chris Baker in East Palo Alto; the 2012 killing of Stoney Gibson in San Francisco; the 2013 killings of Jonathan Alcazar and Lamont Coleman in East Palo Alto, less than two weeks of each other; and a 2013 attempted robbery of Plaza Jewelers in Redwood City.

The DA's office has not decided on whether to pursue the death penalty against eight of the other defendants who are eligible for capital punishment, Wagstaffe's office said. Those persons include Raymond Louis Bradford, Ralph Vernon Fields Jr., Tyrone Sostenes Love-Lopez, Eric Valencia Vargas, Marvin Jake Ware, Donte Demon Jordan, Roshawn Bickman and Laquisha Inethia Walker.

Bradford, Bustos-Montes, Cragg, Hyland, Love-Lopez, Vargas, Ware, Jordan, Bickman and Walker appeared in court on Monday to enter pleas. All of the defendants made a motion to continue their cases, since they are still receiving extensive discovery of police reports, recordings and transcripts from the prosecution. They will all appear in court on Aug. 18 to enter pleas and to set jury trial and pretrial conference dates.

Defense attorney Jonathan McDougall made an oral motion to seal the grand jury transcripts. Judge John Gransdaert stated that any such motion to seal should be in the form of a written motion, and denied McDougall's motion for an interim order sealing the transcripts.

Bradford, Bustos-Montes, Cragg, Hyland, Love-Lopez, Vargas, Ware and Bickham remain in custody on no-bail status. Jordan and Walker remain in custody on $500,000 bail. Ralph Fields is in custody in Santa Clara County facing unrelated murder charges in that county. A no-bail arrest warrant is in effect for Fields.

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