VISALIA, Calif. (AP) — Authorities investigating the fatal shootings of three teenagers in central California said Thursday they have arrested three men suspected in the killings and more than two dozen other gang members connected to a drugs and weapons trafficking operation.
Jose Carlos Hernandez Pena, 19, Isaiah Rule, 18, and Blake Madeiros, 19, were found dead in the parking lot at Golden West High School in Visalia when police responded to reports of shots fired on the evening of May 5, 2020. They were not students at the school, police said.
The ensuing investigation mushroomed into a broader probe of gangs in the agricultural San Joaquin Valley and uncovered a trafficking ring involving guns and drugs that reached to Texas and Mexico, Visalia Police Chief Jason Salazar said during a news conference.
“While the focus was primarily the homicide, it uncovered other crimes that this group of criminal gang members were committing,” Salazar said.
Mark Aceves, 20, Cesar Lopez, 19, and Abraham Molina, 20, were arrested on suspicion of murder in the shootings of the three teens. Molina faces a special circumstances allegation that he fired the gun that killed them, said Tulare County District Attorney Tim Ward.
Attorney information for the three defendants wasn’t immediately available, the DA’s office said.
The suspects in the killings are Sureños gang members, prosecutors said. Further investigation into the gang revealed that members were importing both stolen and lawfully purchased firearms from Texas using proceeds from the sale of the illegal narcotics that were being trafficked into California from Mexico, the state DA’s office said. The firearms were then sold to local gang members or smuggled into Mexico in exchange for more narcotics, officials said.
Law enforcement agents serving warrants on Thursday arrested a total of 27 gang members and associates on conspiracy and other charges, prosecutors said. During the course of the investigation, officers seized 56 firearms and 20 pounds (9 kilograms) of cocaine, authorities said.