An 18-year-old man who admitted being behind the wheel during a drive-by shooting a year ago now is a key witness in the case against a teen accused of hitting a rival gang member in the leg.
Francisco Vargas Jr. pleaded guilty this week in Benton County Superior Court to first-degree rendering criminal assistance for the May 30, 2011, crime outside a Kennewick convenience store.
He had no comment for the court before being sentenced to nine months in jail as part of a negotiated plea.
"This is a very serious charge for a first felony offense," Judge Craig Matheson said to Vargas. "I think you need to give a lot of consideration to what you do with yourself."
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Vargas was charged earlier this month with drive-by shooting, a felony, following his May 2 arrest on a warrant.
After he was picked up by Kennewick police, Vargas admitted in a recorded interview with Detective Dan Long that he was driving the van last year when Jonathon Villegas allegedly fired a gun from the passenger seat, according to court documents filed in Vargas' case.
On Thursday, Prosecutor Andy Miller explained to the court that the rendering charge was more appropriate for Vargas' involvement.
"The evidence was unclear as to whether or not he knew beforehand that Mr. Villegas allegedly was going to shoot at the rival gang member," Miller said.
Though it is questionable if Vargas knew of his passenger's intentions, a person is guilty of rendering criminal assistance if they drive away from the scene after the crime.
Miller also told Matheson that it appears Vargas does not have a substantial background in gangs, compared to his co-defendant. Miller said he discussed the case with Kennewick's gang detectives and his decision to reach an agreement with Vargas' lawyer, Larry Zeigler.
Vargas now can testify against Villegas since his own case has been resolved and he identified Villegas as the alleged shooter, the prosecutor said.
Villegas, 17, is charged with drive-by shooting and first-degree assault, along with a gun enhancement and an aggravating circumstance claiming the shooting was to benefit "a criminal street gang, its reputation, influence or membership."
The shooting in the Sun Mart parking lot at First Avenue and Washington Street sparked a retaliation shooting the next night at a Pasco home. More than a half-dozen people were arrested in connection with the two events.
According to court documents, Kennewick police were called to Jack Didley's on Kennewick Avenue at 11:40 p.m. May 29 for reports of a fight between members and associates of two rival gangs. Some of them were asked to leave the club.
A group had walked down to Sun Mart and were standing in the parking lot when, just after midnight, several witnesses saw a front seat passenger in a minivan open fire on the young men, documents said. Just before the shots were fired, someone in the van reportedly yelled out the name of a gang.
Jaime Tovar, then 16, was wounded in the leg.
Villegas is accused of bringing a .380-caliber pistol to his friend who was angry after being kicked out of Jack Didley's, court documents said.
The description of the van matched the vehicle a friend was driving when Villegas was taken to Lourdes Medical Center in Pasco 15 days earlier with a gunshot wound to his abdomen, documents said. The details of that earlier shooting are not known.
Prosecutors allege that van is registered to Villegas' uncle, who lives in the same Road 40 trailer park in Pasco as Villegas.
The retaliation shooting occurred May 31 outside a Pasco home that is said to be frequented by members of the responsible gang for the Sun Mart incident.
Villegas was arrested June 6 when he went to the tow company where the van had been impounded and tried to get it out. He denied any involvement in the drive-by shooting.
Villegas also appeared in court Thursday, a short time after Vargas' guilty plea. He appeared to shake his head slightly after Miller informed the court that Vargas had been added to the witness list for Villegas' case.
Miller also said he had been waiting to give the defense a plea offer until he knew if Vargas would accept a deal. Now that it's done, Miller said they needed a week to make the offer and for the defense to review.
Villegas' trial is scheduled June 11.