Maria Garcia barely could control her emotions inside a Franklin County courtroom when she came face to face with the man accused of shooting her son to death.
It’s been a long three months for the family of Juan C. Melgoza, 42, of Pasco, not knowing who is responsible for killing him as he stood outside Fiesta Foods.
On Friday afternoon, Garcia and the rest of the Melgoza family got their first look at Chris Pedroza-DeSantiago following his arrest Thursday during a traffic stop in Kennewick.
Police say Pedroza-DeSantiago, 20, a convicted felon, used a .40-caliber pistol to shoot Melgoza on Feb. 4 after he spotted him wearing red — a rival gang color. Police also implicated Abraham Barajas, 15, in the murder.
The Melgoza family watched from courtroom pews while a judge told Pedroza-DeSantiago he faces life in prison for first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder and first-degree unlawful possession of a firearm.
Bail was set at $500,000. Pedroza-DeSantiago was ordered back in court next week.
Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant requested the high bail, saying Pedroza-DeSantiago poses a “substantial threat” to community safety. The active gang member has convictions for a drive-by shooting, residential burglary, fourth-degree assault, malicious mischief and disorderly conduct.
After the brief hearing, family members brushed away tears as they listened to Garcia speak about her son and the affect his death has had on everyone.
“It’s been so difficult for the whole family going through this. We thank God that we are finally getting justice,” said Garcia through translator Melissa Chavez, a cousin of Melgoza. “We want justice so that no other family has to go through what we’ve been through.”
While Pedroza-DeSantiago was in adult court, Barajas had a separate hearing at the Benton-Franklin Juvenile Justice Center in Kennewick, where a judge ordered him held on suspicion of first-degree murder.
Prosecutors have until the morning of May 12 to file charges or release him from custody.
Barajas repeatedly wiped his eyes with a tissue before court started Friday and throughout the hearing, particularly when Court Commissioner Joseph Schneider ordered the teen held on $250,000 bail.
Schneider also told the teen that he will be required to wear leg shackles during future hearings because there’s a substantial risk of him trying to run from the courtroom. Barajas — dressed in a white sweatshirt and dark red pants issued by the Juvenile Detention Center — said he understood the order for restraints.
Franklin County Deputy Prosecutor Kim Kremer told the court that her office plans to charge Barajas with murder.
Barajas then will have to go through a special hearing in Juvenile Court to determine if he should be tried as an adult. Attorney Karyn Oldfield was appointed to represent him.
Police interviewed Barajas and a former girlfriend of Pedroza-DeSantiago’s on May 6. The interviews broke the previously unsolved case open and helped lead to Pedroza-DeSantiago’s arrest.
The former girlfriend was with Pedroza-DeSantiago when the initial dispute happened, court documents said. She told investigators he hopped out of her car angry and she later heard gunshots.
She claims Pedroza-DeSantiago admitted to the shooting.
Barajas has admitted to being part of the same gang as Pedroza-DeSantiago, even proudly displaying a gang tattoo on his forearm to investigators, court documents said.
“He has been assigned gang conditions by this court and has repeatedly violated these conditions by associating with documented gang members,” wrote probation counselor Shawn M. Guajardo.
It was that allegiance to the gang that led to Barajas meeting up with Pedroza-DeSantiago after his older friend saw Melgoza “wearing his colors” outside the store, court documents said.
Barajas claims Pedroza-DeSantiago contacted him and said he needed to “put in work” for their gang, court documents said. Barajas believed he “would have been kicked out of the gang and beaten up” if he did not meet up with Pedroza-DeSantiago.
Barajas “mentioned the gang was like his family,” so for him it wasn’t a question whether he would meet with Pedroza-DeSantiago, court documents said.
The two met outside another store east of Fiesta Foods, and Pedroza-DeSantiago allegedly showed the teen the pistol, which Barajas claimed he had held the week before but did not touch that day.
As they walked to the front of the grocery store, they argued about who would shoot Melgoza. Ultimately, Pedroza-DeSantiago took the pistol out, walked up to their rival and yelled his gang’s name as he fired several times, court documents said.
Barajas claimed he was about 10 feet behind Pedroza-DeSantiago when the shots were fired. He said he saw Melgoza fall to the ground as the two ran away toward Barajas’ nearby house.
Barajas told investigators that once they were home, Pedroza-DeSantiago “told him to pee on his hands, which he did as he was scared even though he didn’t fire the gun,” court documents said.
The two got a ride to a Kennewick apartment, where they stayed the night. Barajas said someone took the pistol from them at the apartment, and that was the last time he saw it.
Police were able to interview Barajas quickly because he was already in custody at the juvenile detention center for violating his probation April 20, when he was found wearing a hat with his gang’s name on it.
Barajas’ criminal history includes third-degree assault — for which he is serving a 14-day probation violation — residential burglary and disorderly conduct.
Guajardo, the probation counselor, noted that the teen’s mother “has shown a pattern of failing to provide adequate supervision for Abraham and allowing him to associate with documented gang-involved peers.”
The document also said that Barajas’ mother has reported in the past that she can’t provide the necessary supervision when she is working.