A Murrieta jury was bogged down today for attempted murder and assault with a gun against a licensed gang member indicted in a 2017 shooting in Cathedral City that seriously injured a man despite their criminal activity in Street gangs found guilty.
The jury deliberated for almost four days in the trial of 39-year-old Desert Hot Springs’ Thomas Zaragoza, who was shot and killed after an argument at what was then The Block Sports Bar & Grill on Ramon Road and Date Palm Drive on Mike Avila that night July 26, 2017.
The business is now known as Henry’s Sports Bar & Grill.
After the jury reported they were hopelessly bogged down Tuesday afternoon, Riverside County Superior Court Judge Timothy Freer directed them to return to the Southwest Justice Center in Murrieta today to hear 20-minute arguments each side to discuss the To overcome dead end.
The jury ended up voting 11-1 for both the attempted murder and the gun attack, despite Freer saying he didn’t ask the jury which way the vote had tilted.
Riverside County Prosecutor’s Office spokesman John Hall said the prosecution has yet to make a decision as to whether the defendant should be re-indicted on these charges. Attorneys on both sides were ordered to return to court on Friday morning for a trial of the defendant’s convictions in preparation for a hearing condemning the gang activity.
Zaragoza was arrested along with three other men pleaded guilty to the case: Andrew Monroy, 26, and Carlos Rodriguez, 29, both residents of Cathedral City; and Ricky Ceballos, 28, of Desert Hot Springs.
According to assistant district attorney Jenna Barsamian, Zaragoza’s three friends got into an argument with Avila at the bar before it escalated into an argument around 11 p.m. One of the men hit the victim twice but failed to score.
Prosecutors claim that Zaragoza then walked into the bar, immediately pulled a gun and opened fire on the victim at close range. According to the authorities, another man was shot in the foot sometime in the evening.
Barsamian claimed that all four men were members of the same street criminal gang in Cathedral City and that the argument broke out because the men considered the victim and his wife
According to the prosecution, Avila grabbed a pool cue to defend himself. He was at the bar celebrating his wife's birthday that night, according to his family. Avila could be heard telling the suspects before the shooting, “Hey, I don’t even know who you are. I just want to go,” the court records said.
Barsamian said the victim was shot in two shots, one of which was fired while fleeing.
Zaragoza took a stand in its own defense last week. He admitted that he was involved in the shooting and was a member of a criminal street gang based in Cathedral City, but claimed that the shooting was an accident and not related to the gang. He also said his gun fired a single bullet that hit Avila – not two – and that it only happened because the victim tried to reach for the gun.
"He's the reason the gun went off. He's the one that was trying to take it from me," Zaragoza testified. “I never directed it at him.”
As the defendant relates, he was smoking a cigarette in front of the bar when he returned to a fight that was already underway.
Zaragoza said he and his friends were in the bar celebrating a new construction job he recently got and not looking for an argument.
Zaragoza said he then saw the victim hold a pool cue.
"He was ready to (expletive) somebody up," the defendant said.
In response, Zaragoza said he raised his shirt in order to show Avila he had a gun in a bid to cool off the situation.
“I showed him my gun, but I left it in my shirt,” he testified. “I tried to get him to … stop.”
Zaragoza said Avila then reached for his gun unsuccessfully, resulting in a single shot being fired.
In addition, Zaragoza admitted to deliberately firing multiple shots at a wall – he said he did so in another attempt to calm the situation – but denied that he attempted to shoot anyone at any point.
Zaragoza said a shot actually hit Avila and that it entered the victim’s hand before proceeding to his abdomen.
The four men were arrested at a gas station in Banning two days after the shooting. The pistol used in the shooting was never found, Barsamian said.
According to his family, Avila was operated on several times and had to be hospitalized in an intensive care unit for several months.
Monroy, Rodriguez and Ceballos reached an agreement with prosecutors in January 2020 in which they pleaded guilty to bodily harm and conceded gang-related criminal charges and were each sentenced to eight years in state prison.
The men were also originally charged with attempted murder, assault with a gun, and gang activity, but those charges were dismissed in exchange for their appeals.
Zaragoza has criminal convictions such as spouse abuse and petty theft with ancestors. He remains in custody.