Police: '05 Pinole double murder followed simmering gang battle
The July 30, 2005, double murder of two young men in a downtown park that convulsed Pinole and shook its cultivated self-image as a city largely free of violent crime was not an isolated event, authorities say.
Darren Kretchmar, 21, of Pinole, and Dave Gregory, 18, of Hercules were standing at a railroad trestle on the edge of Fernandez Park late that afternoon when Daniel Ruiz, a member of a Richmond gang, walked up and shot them and a third young man, who survived.
Ruiz, known as "Turtle," had been at a barbecue in the driveway of a Tennent Avenue duplex hosted by a fellow gang member on parole for attempted murder, when Ruiz saw Gregory, wearing a red shirt, walk into the park, said Detective Sgt. Matt Messier, the lead investigator in the case. Red is the color claimed by the Nortenos, the archrivals of Ruiz's gang, the Surenos, who claim blue. The victims had no affiliation whatsoever with any gang, police say.
But there was more to Ruiz's rage than the sight of a red shirt.
"In West Contra Costa, at that time, there was a gang turf war between Nortenos and Surenos," Messier said. "It was jumping before the park murders."
When Pinole police caught and arrested Ruiz in a yard minutes after his botched getaway, they found on him a photo of Edgar Zepeda Vega, a Sureno shot to death just weeks earlier in front of his home in Richmond, reputedly by a Norteno. Three days later, on June 12, 2005, a 20-year-old man whom Messier described as a former Sureno was shot and critically wounded on Encina Avenue in Pinole, reputedly by a Norteno.
Months before, on Nov. 5, 2004, Armando Vargas, a Sureno according to Messier, had been shot dead in Richmond, also reputedly by a Norteno.
And on July 11, 2005, Diego Pereza, a Hayward Sureno, was shot to death on an apartment house landing in El Sobrante; a 17-year-old from Pinole, who Messier said was a Norteno, was charged as an adult with murder, a gang enhancement and other charges; the disposition of the case could not be determined.
On Aug. 6, 2005, police arrested Teresita Rodriguez in San Pablo; Rodriguez had accompanied Ruiz into the park the day he killed Kretchmar and Gregory, Messier said. Rodriguez laughed when he showed her photos of the bodies, Messier said.
A few days later, police raided a Sureno house in North Richmond and found photos of Zepeda's funeral, with mourners throwing gang signs and brandishing firearms, Messier said. They also found a June 10, 2005, Times article describing the Zepeda killing and another shooting in North Richmond minutes earlier, and the arrest of two people including a 17-year-old Pinole resident who Zepeda's mourners believed were Nortenos.
"Why do you have a Sureno gang member, out on parole for attempted murder, living in Pinole, in an apartment overlooking the park?" Messier said. "These guys know their very good buddy (Zepeda) was shot and killed by a Norteno gang member. These are guys with serious motivation."
On July 30, 2005, Ruiz and Rodriguez, entered the park together in pursuit of the unsuspecting Gregory. As Messier tells it, as Gregory reached the railroad trestle, where Kretchmar happened to be sitting, Ruiz walked up behind Gregory and said, "What's up, homie," and shot him in the face after he turned around. Then Ruiz shot Kretchmar and the other young man.
"They see themselves as soldiers; there's a war going on," Messier said of the gang member mentality. And in war, he added, there are "civilian" casualties.
Last month, Ruiz, 28, was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole after pleading guilty to two counts of first- degree murder, attempted murder and gang enhancements, avoiding a trial and possible death sentence. At his sentencing, he said he was happy and looking forward to a life in prison that would be safer than outside.
"Daniel Ruiz said he's safer in prison," Messier said, "and in a way he is. He's with his gang."
Rodriguez, 23, pleaded guilty to being an accessory and was sentenced to three years' probation and a three-year suspended prison sentence.
"The main thing is he's off the street," Kretchmar's mother, Vicki Basham, who has moved to Fairfield, said of Ruiz. "I agree with that. He can't do this again."
Her sister, Linda Chambers of Rodeo, feels similarly about Ruiz and his fate, she said, but as for Rodriguez, "None of us feel that she really paid for her part in it."