GWHS murder investigation uncovers international narcotics, firearms ring

Authorities have identified and arrested the men they say are responsible for a triple homicide on the campus of Golden West High School on May 5, 2020, and in the process uncovered an alleged scheme to bring guns to Tulare County in exchange for Mexican methamphetamine and locally-grown cannabis.

The arrests were announced by State Attorney General Rob Bonta at a press conference in Visalia on Thursday, January 13, and charging documents filed by the Tulare County District Attorney’s office say the accused killers are members of the South Side Kings, a local street gang affiliated with the Sureños, an international prison gang.

“An investigation that began with the tragic murder of three young people in Visalia led to law enforcement uncovering a drug and firearms conspiracy that reached from California to Texas and Mexico,” Bonta said. “While we cannot take away the grief and loss the Visalia community has felt as a result of these horrific and senseless murders, we can bring to account the people who committed these crimes.”

 

Drug Robbery Gone Wrong

According to a set of filings presented in Tulare County Superior Court last week, the killings of Blake Medeiros, Jose Hernandez-Peña and Isaiah Rule in the parking lot at Golden West High School on McAuliff Road in Visalia were the result of a robbery that went wrong.

Prosecutors say the three men were at the school to meet Lindsay resident and South Side King member Abraham Daniel Molina to sell him a small amount of cannabis and narcotic pills. Molina, however, intended to rob the men with the help of two accomplices and fellow gang members Mark Anthony Aceves of Visalia and Tulare resident Cesar Lopez. Molina is accused of shooting all three men in the company of Aceves while Lopez acted as driver.

The trio were identified one year and a day after the killings by an anonymous tipster who told Visalia police detectives Molina had killed Medieros, Hernandez-Peña and Rule during the attempted armed robbery when he saw one of the victims “reaching for something.”

The resulting investigation would eventually grow to include not only the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office and the Tulare County District Attorney’s Office, but the state DoJ’s Special Operations Unit, the California Highway Patrol and the FBI. In all, 27 search warrants were served as a result of the investigation, and 22 people were arrested.

All of the arrests involved Tulare County residents.

“I am grateful that this investigation has led to the arrests of suspects involved in the May 2020 triple homicide of Jose Hernandez-Peña, Isaiah Rule, and Blake Medeiros and that this will begin to bring healing and justice to their families,” said Visalia Police Chief Jason Salazar. “I am also very proud of the hard work and dedication of the Visalia police detectives who have worked so diligently on this case and (of) all of our law enforcement partners on this investigation for their contributions and resources to help bring justice to these families and to our community.”

 

The Night of the Killings

Documents filed in the case against the trio of accused killers describe in detail what authorities believe happened the night Medeiros, Hernandez-Peña and Rule died just before midnight on May 5, 2020.

The first evidence Molina, Aceves and Lopez were responsible for the murders came from the security cameras at the Circle K convenience market located at McAuliff Road and Houston Avenue, a few hundred feet from the crime scene. The video shows a 2014 Chevrolet Cruze driven by the victims entering the GWHS east parking lot, and moments later at 10:58 p.m., a blue GMC Sierra pickup stops on McAuliff at the stoplight at Houston before continuing north out of frame.

Authorities would later identify Lopez as the truck’s owner, and cellular data would place all three suspects at the scene of the crime at the time it occurred, filings state.

The shooting began at 11:07 p.m. — nine minutes after Lopez’s truck was sighted — and the sound of seven shots fired in quick succession over nine seconds was captured by security cameras at a nearby home. A second residential security camera captured a second suspect vehicle, a white Nissan Maxima also associated with Lopez. That vehicle arrived at East St. John’s Parkway and Lovers Lane at 11:04 p.m. and departed at 11:13 p.m., moments after the murders occurred.

 

Video of the Killings

According to the DA’s charging documents, the body of Hernandez-Peña was discovered in the driver’s seat of the Cruze with an ounce of cannabis — the three victims were allegedly selling cannabis, police say — and a cell phone at his feet. Medeiros’ body was found in the backseat, and the vehicle’s back window had been shot out. Rule was found 50 yards north of the vehicle with several gunshot wounds to his lower back and a single wound to the head. Police believe he was shot at close range.

Seven .40-caliber shell casings were found east of Rule’s body, and ground surrounding him was marked with “bullet strikes,” police say.

While security video footage from the school’s camera does not show the shooting, it does capture its aftermath, as the Cruze, now driverless, crosses the parking lot and crashes through a construction fence before coming to rest on a parking lot island. The GWHS footage also shows two men fleeing east from the parking lot. Investigators would later identify the pair as Molina and Aceves.

 

Tracking Down the Alleged Killers

With a reliable tip to work with, VPD officers obtained wiretap orders for a dozen cellphones, three Facebook accounts and six Snapchat accounts associated with the main suspects and three other associated men, Bryan Loza, Luiz Zacarias and Edward Zepeda.

Collection of surveillance data began on September 22, 2021, and captured were telephone calls, messages and texts regarding drug possession, drug sales, illegal firearm possession and illegal firearm sales between members of the Sureño gang and their associates.

Police began using their social media platforms to indicate Molina, Aceves and Lopez were the focus of their investigation in what court documents describe as “investigative stimulation strategies” intended to bait the wiretapped individuals into revealing information about the murders. The taunting worked.

First, the VPD announced a $50,000 reward for information about the killings on October 1, 2021. When this failed to generate talk among the surveillance subjects, a flier featuring cars similar to the Nissan Maxima and GMC Sierra were circulated in the Ivanhoe area where the South Side Kings are active.

In response, Loza sent a group message featuring the flier with recipients including Lopez and Zepeda. Molina also contacted Lopez regarding the flier, and the pair arranged to meet with Aceves to smoke and discuss the situation. Later, officers followed Molina as he picked up Lopez and Aceves. It was the first time the three had met since surveillance started, and officers believe they met to discuss the investigation.

 

The ‘Homeboy Truck’

Then on October 26, a modified flier featuring the white Nissan Maxima was circulated in the neighborhood west of GWHS as a means of contacting Andrew Alcorn, an alleged associate of Molina, Lopez and Aceves. According to court documents, Alcorn denied knowledge of the killings, and when officers left his home, he sent a video to Molina to say officers had been more correct with the first flier. It included a picture of Lopez’s GMC Sierra, which Alcorn referred to as the “homeboy truck,” police allege.

Hours after the contact with Alcorn, police say Aceves called Lopez, telling him he was coming over. Minutes later, Aceves’ girlfriend, Dalia Rangel, asked him in a phone conversation why he was going to meet Lopez.

Aceves allegedly told Rangel, “You know how we did something.”

Officers believe that something is the triple murder.

Police say Aceves previously revealed via social media his possession for sale of “ghost guns” without serial numbers that he constructed. He was arrested on November 9, 2021 by the Tulare County Agencies Regional Gun Violence Enforcement Team, and during his arrest officers who were introduced as homicide detectives took a DNA swab of Aceves in the presence of Rangel.

Rangel, police say, is known to associate with Lopez. A few hours after the arrest of Aceves, Rangel allegedly contacted his sister, Sarina Aceves, and his mother, Anna Becerra, and the three agreed to meet at Becerra’s Visalia workplace with Lopez. After the meeting ended, all but Becerra left, and in the following days, Lopez stopped using his longtime phone, which was under surveillance, and Aceves stopped using his longtime social media accounts. Police say they believe Becerra advised the men to stop in order to evade further police detection.

 

Tracking the ‘Sus’ Truck

On November 11, 2021, investigators say Aceves and Lopez were together at the home of Ethan Schelling — referred to in court documents as the “White Homie” — where they had previously attended at least one “gang” party. On that date, a tracker on Aceves’ vehicle placed it at the auto shop in Ivanhoe where officers say Lopez’s GMC Sierra was parked.

Aceves’ vehicle was tracked as it drove around Ivanhoe — supposedly to pick up Lopez, according to police — then returned to the auto shop and stopped. The pair then moved the GMC to Schelling’s Road 159 residence before Aceves took Lopez home, police say.

The next day, officers confirmed the truck was no longer at the auto shop, and the day after that, November 13, Schelling told Lopez to remove the truck since it looked “sus,” leading officers to believe he was aware the truck was sought by police and the trio were suspected of involvement in the homicides.

On November 14, while TCSO deputies distracted Schelling, a tracker was placed on Lopez’s truck. One hour after the visit, Schelling attempted to contact Lopez via phone and social media unsuccessfully. Schelling then contacted Molina — who said he didn’t know where Lopez was — and asked him to let him know he was trying to contact him. Schelling then called Aceves to report the visit by officers. Aceves asked if the officers were concerned with anything on the property, and Schelling said no and told Aceves to, “Tell Cesar (Lopez) it’s all good.”

The next day, police say Aceves and Lopez moved the GMC Sierra back to Lopez’s home.

At 9:11 p.m. on that day, Rangel called Aceves to ask his whereabouts. He reported being at the Circle K at McAuliff and Houston to “help out a homie.” The tracker on Aceves’ vehicle places it at Lopez’s residence at 11:45 p.m. that night. The vehicle departed at 11:47 p.m. and returned to Aceves’ home. Trackers on Lopez and Aceves’ vehicles show they were both at Schelling’s residence before Lopez moved his truck back home. They departed at the same time, taking different routes home, leading police to believe Aceves knew Lopez was going to retrieve his truck and may have given him a ride to Schelling’s home.

 

Truck Reported Stolen

Four days later, in an intercepted conversation, Aceves told Rangel he was with “the White Shadow,” a nickname for Lopez, and Jesus “Jessie” Ramirez at the home of Bryan Loza. A few minutes before midnight on November 19, Ramirez asked Loza for a ride to a location near Lopez’s home. Then at 1 a.m. on November 20, Loza, in a social media conversation with a friend, said he was going to pick up Lopez’s truck, that “…these guys are burnt,” and he is doing them a favor.

At 1:17 a.m., tracking data shows Lopez’s truck was driven from his home to Ramirez’s home on Avenue 330 in Ivanhoe. At 12:30 p.m. that afternoon, Lopez called the VPD and reported the truck stolen. At 8:30 p.m., Ramirez used Aceves’ cell phone to call his mother, Laura Araiza, and the pair discussed how much money they could make selling what police presume are the stripped parts of Lopez’s GMC Sierra.

Officers seized the truck from Ramirez’s home on November 22. It had been stripped of some parts and the engine was being removed. Aceves GPS data places him at the property on the night of November 21, leading police to believe he aided in stripping the vehicle.

The GMC Sierra is the same vehicle that appeared in the Circle K security footage, police say, and Molina’s Snapchat data place him at that location at that time. The same data also places Molina 136 yards southwest of the crime scene at about the time the killings occurred, police allege.

 

Deadly Drug Deal

On May 4, 2020, the day before the triple homicide, Molina sent video of a .40-caliber weapon and a flame emoji via social media . The next day, he messaged another user, “Aye g I got you on a 40 (a .40-caliber weapon) 700$ lmk (let me know).” He also received an audio message from a user who was looking for a “strap,” a firearm, on the “low.” Another message seeks “licks,” opportunities to rob people during drug transactions, and still another lists the Ivanhoe address of Luis Zacaria, who investigators say is a known South Side Kings member.

The murder weapon used the next night was a .40-caliber weapon.

As the VPD investigation into the killings proceeded, cell data show Molina continued to monitor it via the internet. In early October, Molina learned rumors circulating in Ivanhoe named him as the killer, and about the same time Loza would take another Snapchat user to task for telling people Loza had said Lopez was involved in the killings.

Finally, a second confidential informant contacted the Visalia Police Department, claiming Molina told them he was “involved” in something in a parking lot and said Lopez drove.

The three suspects allegedly told the informant one of the victims had been “reaching for something” so Molina shot them. Molina is alleged to have said he shot two or three people.

The night of the killings, Rule reportedly told his girlfriend he and Medieros intended to purchase narcotic pills and sell a “zip,” an ounce of cannabis. Medeiros’ social media posts from that day show him offering a bag of pills and cannabis for sale with the comment, “Who need it.”

An hour before he was murdered, Hernandez allegedly told his girlfriend he would not be home because he had to finish selling his “sack.” Fifteen minutes before he was killed, Hernandez received a message from a social media account belonging to Molina containing only an address located 0.35 miles from the location of the murders.

 

Gun, Drug Trafficking Revealed

As a result of the investigation, Molina, Lopez and Aceves have been charged with three counts of murder, as well as additional charges related to the use of a gun during the commission of a crime.

However, identifying the likely killers was not the only result of the investigation. It would also lead to the discovery of what the FBI says is a trafficking operation to exchange weapons from Texas for drugs imported from Mexico through California by members of the South Side Kings gang.

During their investigation of the accused killers, officers also wiretapped the phone and social media accounts of self-identified South Side Kings member Jonathan Gallegos, who revealed evidence of his alleged guns-for-drugs exchanges with Malachai Serrano, a resident of Texas. Intelligence gathered from monitoring Gallegos led officers to begin surveillance of two other suspects in the scheme, Andres Perez and Jesus Angulo.

On September 22, 2021, Serranos allegedly told Gallegos a third party would ship Gallegos illegal firearms — referred to as “toys” — in exchange for methamphetamine, referred to as “work” or “jale.” Gallegos and Perez prepared the drug for shipment and sent it to an address provided by Serrano, who then prepared the meth for distribution in Texas. On September 23, the pair discussed the transaction, noting the two packages of methamphetamine were shy by three grams each.

“They look good, though, right?” Serrano is alleged to have asked. “Like the first ones we got?”

“Hell yeah, foo’,” Gallegos allegedly replied. “Big ol’ shards, clear.”

 

Drugs to Texas and Guns to California, Mexico

The pair also allegedly discussed details of mailing the drugs to Texas via the USPS. Their conversations also supposedly included discussion of “10 pounds of dope” located at Gallegos’ home, which police believe is cannabis, and two kilograms of methamphetamine, along with the rate of exchange. The pair settled on six firearms — “nines and forties,” referring to 9-millimeter and .40 caliber weapons — per kilogram of methamphetamine.

Surveillance shows Gallegos contacted Perez, who was allegedly tasked with mailing the drugs to addresses in Texas, shipping them from Ivanhoe on October 3. Two packages were allegedly mailed by Perez that day, a 6-pound package of meth and a 7.1-pound package of cannabis. Gallegos and Serrano discussed the packages repeatedly during the next few days as they awaited arrival. The packages arrived at the Texas addresses on October 6.

Conversations between Gallegos and Serrano following the shipment allegedly discussed whether the people who purchased the methamphetamine from Serrano had liked it. He allegedly said they did, and the two discussed the purity of the drug and its high quality.

The shipment between Gallegos and Serrano — which has resulted in charges of distribution of methamphetamine in excess of 500 grams and conspiracy allegations for the pair — appears to have been only a small portion of the drugs and weapons being exchanged. According to an investigation by the USPS, 62 parcels amounting to hundreds of pounds of shipped items were exchanged between addresses in Texas and addresses in the Ivanhoe area.

 

Guns, Drugs Seized from Mail

Starting on October 7, FBI investigators began seizing and searching packages fitting the shipping pattern established by Gallegos, Perez and Serrano. Discovered were 4.8 kilograms of cannabis (10.56 pounds) shipped from Ivanhoe, and 16 firearms and 26 high-capacity magazines shipped from San Antonio, Texas.

FBI agents continued to intercept packages through early December, capturing two more pounds of cannabis in the final shipments seized.

Before that, however, investigators listened in as Serrano and Gallegos worked on plans to ship five additional kilos of meth to Texas in exchange for 30 firearms, some of which were intended for transportation to Mexico. It was at this point Perez became more involved in the scheme, agreeing to accept shipments of guns at his Visalia address.

The scheme was ended on October 26, when agents arrested Gallegos and Jesus Angulo as they were returning from Los Angeles. The pair were in possession of just under 9.5 kilos of powder cocaine at the time of their arrest. Also discovered in Angulo’s truck was a Springfield XD .45-caliber handgun that had been reported stolen from San Antonio, Texas.

The gun was located under Gallegos’ seat.

 

Decades in Prison, Millions in Fines

The arrests of Gallegos, Serrano, Perez and Angulo are just four of the 27 arrests resulting from the investigation. Gallegos and Serrano face charges of distribution of more than 500 grams of meth, and conspiracy charges relating to their discussion of their exchanges. Distribution of meth can carry a 20-year prison sentence and a $1 million fine. Because the amount trafficked was greater than 500 grams, a minimum 10-year sentence will be imposed in the event the men are found guilty. The conspiracy charge carries a similar 10-year minimum sentence.

Both crimes can also result in life sentences and $10 million fines.

Gallegos, Perez and Serrano also face charges of using a firearm in the commission of a narcotics crime. Conviction on that count requires a minimum sentence of five years, and the related conspiracy charges could result in a 20-year sentence. Both offenses carry possible fines of up to $250,000.

Finally, Gallegos and Angulo could be sentenced to terms of at least 10 years in federal prison for their alleged trafficking of more than 5 pounds of cocaine with intent to distribute. The charges could result in life sentences with fines of up to $10 million.

“If we can suffocate their funding sources, we can cripple their operations,” said U.S. Attorney Phillip A. Talbert.

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