DRIVE-BY JUSTICE

JESSE GARCIA DROVE THE CAR DURING A SOUTHSIDE GANG SHOOTING. THAT MAKES HIM AN ACCESSORY. SO WHY IS HE DOING ALL THE PRISON TIME?

Jesse Garcia is trying to explain why he was in the wrong car, on the wrong street, with the wrong pal, on that steamy afternoon last July.

"Very bad luck," says the 22-year-old Phoenix native. "I wish I didn't have that day off. I wish I never was on that side of town. I wish I could start that day all over again."

Here's what happened, based on police reports, court testimony and personal accounts:

Last July 16, Garcia and sixteen-year-old Jimmy Abril drove to South Phoenix to visit Abril's parents. The pair weren't close, but they'd been hanging out together since Garcia had rented a room at an eastside Phoenix condo owned by Abril's girlfriend.

Garcia calls himself "a lover, not a fighter," and few dispute him. This third-youngest of sixteen siblings had a few brushes with the law for nonviolent crimes as a juvenile in the mid-Eighties, but he'd stayed out of trouble since then. His own girlfriend and his job as a crew trainer at a McDonald's occupied most of his time. By all accounts, Garcia has never been part of a gang.

High school dropout Abril, however, is a member of a Hispanic gang known as the Southside Eses. (Ese is Mexican slang that roughly translates to "homeboy" or "dude.") Abril is more familiar with guns than with books.

The two spent about an hour at the Abrils' home that July afternoon, then left. As Abril drove his girlfriend's Grand Am out of the neighborhood, he sighted nineteen-year-old Ramon Bianco, his longtime archenemy. No one remembers exactly how the feud started, but most agree it's about teenage egos and turf.

Bianco is a member of the Southside Posse, a Phoenix gang said by police to be linked with the infamous Los Angeles-based Bloods. The Posse and the Eses hate each other with a passion that often turns violent.

What happened next remains in dispute. But some things are certain: Bianco and Abril flashed gang signs at each other in a kind of ritual war dance. Abril stopped his car, intending, he said later, to pummel his foe.

Things escalated quickly. Some witnesses, most of them friends of Bianco, say Abril fired first. A neighbor later told detectives he'd seen Bianco fire twice at Abril with a .357 magnum and had heard a third shot. The shots missed, and Abril sped away. A few blocks away, an enraged Abril parked and ordered Jesse Garcia to take over the wheel and drive back in Bianco's direction.

That was when Garcia made the mistake that would land him behind bars: He obeyed Abril.

Garcia drove past Bianco's home at about 25 mph, according to testimony from bystanders. He claims he didn't know of Abril's intentions until Abril reached under the passenger seat and grabbed a .25-caliber handgun. Abril sprayed the area with at least twelve shots as Bianco and others sought cover. One bullet hit unarmed Southside Posse member Mark Bravo in the right kneecap. Another blew out a window of an unoccupied Chevy pickup. Bianco escaped injury.

Garcia immediately drove back to the Abrils'. Their house is close enough that Jimmy Abril's father Manuel had heard the gunfire. The Abrils dialed 911, and Phoenix police later arrested Garcia at his home without incident, and detained Abril, a juvenile.

In the days that followed, prosecutors at the Maricopa County Attorney's Office made the following mind-boggling decisions about the shooting:

Ray Bianco--the gang member who may have fired first and certainly shot with a .357 magnum--wasn't charged. He and injured fellow Posse member Mark Bravo officially became "victims."

Jimmy Abril was allowed to plea-bargain to a minor charge of "misconduct involving weapons," despite his admission to detectives that he had attempted to murder his rival gang members. He appeared at Maricopa County Juvenile Court with his lawyer, his parents, a neighborhood priest and State Representative Armando Ruiz, a family friend.

The wrath of the law fell on, of all people, Jesse Garcia, the young man who drove the car.

A grand jury indicted him on a charge of aggravated assault with a gun, a crime termed "dangerous," and that carries a mandatory prison term of at least five years. After Garcia's plea-bargain negotiations fell through, he went to trial, and was convicted November 6 of assaulting Mark Bravo and Ray Bianco.

This tale of senseless violence and dashed dreams, of malevolent teens and helpless parents, has an added unsavory element. While no one argues that Garcia is blameless, his lawyer says prosecutor Kevin Maricle seemed to be more concerned with keeping her name out of the media than in dispensing justice.

Assistant public defender Roland Steinle says Maricle told him during plea-bargain negotiations, "`I'm just not going to end up in the newspaper as giving away a gang case.'"

"That isn't justice," Steinle says. "I told her my client was the only person in the whole scenario who wasn't a gang member. Jesse made a mistake, but he wasn't the bad guy. The real bad guys were Jimmy and Ray, the shooters."

Maricle did not return repeated calls from New Times for comment, but that's not surprising. A probation officer who prepared a written presentence summary about Garcia noted, "Numerous messages were left for Kevin Maricle. No response has been received."

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