Friday, July 18, 2008

Justice done

It doesn't bring back his victim but I hope however it brings closure to their families.

Taco Land suspect pleads guilty, gets 50 years in prison
Elizabeth Allen - Express-News

The second suspect in the Taco Land bar slayings — which sent ripples across the city and shut down a 30-year mainstay of the local underground music scene — struck a plea deal Thursday for 50 years in prison.

On the eve of his capital murder trial, Jose Najera pleaded guilty to two counts of murder for the deaths of iconic bar owner Ramiro “Ram” Ayala and doorman Douglas “Gypsy Doug” Morgan.

The state had sought the death penalty against Najera, 32, accused in the June 24, 2005, robbery of Taco Land that left Ayala, 72, and Morgan, 53, dead and bartender Denise Koger wounded. Jury selection was scheduled to begin in Najera's trial today.

“I'm glad he's man enough to admit what he did,” said Koger, reached by telephone at her home after 379th District Judge Bert Richardson sentenced Najera, who must serve 25 years before becoming eligible for parole.

While prosecutors alleged Najera took part in the deadly robbery, he was not the triggerman. Joseph Gamboa, 25, was convicted of being the shooter and sentenced to death last year.
The crime at the small, gritty bar on an industrial stretch of East Grayson Street shocked the local underground music scene. Through its patriarch, Taco Land acquired a reputation for welcoming struggling musicians and for customers of all walks of life.

Ayala was known for his generosity and gruff hospitality, as well as his birthday parties and broad musical tastes, from punk to jazz to conjunto. His musical legacy is honored with an annual “Ram Jam” set near his birthday in the second week of April.

Before his death, Ayala hosted new bands and area favorites like The Swindles and Los #3 Dinners, as well as bands from across the country.
But nobody was playing the night of his death.

Ayala had not opened the bar until late that June night, after the Spurs had won their third NBA title. Few people were there when Najera and Gamboa came in.
Koger and other witnesses told jurors at Gamboa's trial that the two men drank beer and played pool before robbing the bar.

Gamboa first approached Ayala, spoke to him, then shot him, Koger testified. He tried to get Morgan to open the cash register, but Morgan said he couldn't.

Then, she testified, Najera ordered Gamboa to “make the bitch do it,” at which point Gamboa grabbed Koger by the hair and forced her to open the register.

Despite her cooperation, both Koger, then 41, and Morgan were shot.

Najera had a long string of convictions and violations in jail and prison. They included inhalant abuse, criminal mischief, assault, theft and burglary.

Last week, Najera's case made headlines when a potential witness was found dead in her apartment.

Police discovered Michelle LaGue, 44, with her throat cut after responding to a call from a concerned neighbor who noticed she had not taken out her trash or pulled her laundry from the line.

No arrests have been made in LaGue's slaying, and police would not comment on whether they thought her death was linked to Najera's trial. But LaGue's co-workers told the Express-News last week that detectives didn't think the two were related.

LaGue had been on the Taco Land patio when the attackers sped away and she had given a statement to police, according to a friend. But she did not testify in Gamboa's trial, and prosecutor Julie Wright said it wasn't clear if she would have been called at Najera's.

Of Thursday's last-minute plea deal, defense attorney Ray Fuchs said, “I think it's one situation where the state is not hellbent on giving death penalties to non-killers.”

The plea deal makes parole possible for Najera. If he had been convicted of capital murder — even if a jury had spared his life — he would never have been released from prison.

The plea deal also means that witnesses and family members won't have to relive the crime at trial, something that relieved Koger.

“At least now I don't have to bring it all up and see all the pictures again,” she said. “Just as long as it's OK with Ram's family and Doug's family, it's OK with me. Ram's family doesn't really want to go through all this again.”