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Plea deals made in deaths at Los Banos club

MERCED – The case of five defendants accused of killing two men outside the Club Azul nightclub in Los Banos has come to a close, as all of the defendants have accepted plea agreements with the Merced County district attorney’s office.

Prosecutors say the victims, Angel Rodriguez, 30, and Ruben Sanchez, 34, were members of the Mongols biker gang, while the defendants are members of the Norteño street gang.

The accused shooter in the case, Mando Lopez, 22, will be sentenced to 21 years in prison after pleading no contest Monday afternoon to two counts of voluntary manslaughter, with an enhancement for using a gun. He’ll be eligible for parole after serving about 18 years in prison, according to Deputy District Attorney David Elgin, the prosecutor in the case.

Mando Lopez’s twin brother Armando Lopez, along with defendants Joe Castillo, 26, and Francisco Esquivel, 21, pleaded no contest to accessory after the fact and a second charge of active participation in a criminal street gang. They were released from the jail with credit for time served.

The fifth suspect, Isaac Bermea, 19, pleaded no contest to accessory after the fact, with a prior strike. He was sentenced to 32 months in prison, but was released with credit for time served, Elgin said.

The double homicide took place around 2 a.m. Aug. 7, 2011, in an alley near the nightclub after an altercation between the gangs, authorities say. But Elgin said it’s still unknown what sparked the conflict between the two sides.

Elgin said the prosecution reached plea agreements with the defendants because of several factors. For example, Elgin said the witnesses were all aligned with one gang or the other, and gave contradictory and biased statements.

He said the video surveillance footage in the case wasn’t particularly useful because the cameras did not capture crucial moments of the incident.

Still, Elgin said DNA linked to the Lopez brothers was found on the gun used in the shootings. Investigators determined Mando Lopez was the shooter, based on a clothing description and other information which eliminated Armando Lopez as the triggerman. “Because of the way the facts were in this case, I believe that we got a just result,” Elgin said.

Tom Pfeiff, Mando Lopez’s attorney, was reached on Tuesday, but declined comment.

Claim of innocence

Jeffrey Tenenbaum, Armando Lopez’s attorney, said he couldn’t elaborate on details about the case, but said his client maintains he’s innocent. “My client continues to deny any involvement but is willing to accept the terms of his probation and move on,” Tenenbaum said.

Attorney William A. Davis represented Esquivel, saying the case against his client was based on nothing more than “guilt by association,” saying prosecutors would’ve had a difficult time getting a conviction. Davis said his client was at the nightclub when a “verbal fracas” happened that involved his friends.

Davis said the case was complicated because there were video cameras inside and outside of the nightclub, “and yet (they) really did not shed that much light on (the incident),” he said.

Still, Davis said the resolution was appropriate for his client. “This was a good compromise for him, and he can get on with his life,” he said.

David Capron represented Castillo; and Chris Loethen represented Bermea. They could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

Mando Lopez is scheduled to be sentenced by Judge Brian McCabe on Feb. 8.

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