Vietnam vet was mistakenly shot to death in 2011
LAS CRUCES – The last of four young men charged in the 2011 mistaken revenge killing of a Vietnam veteran has pleaded guilty to murder and other related charges in 3rd Judicial District Court.
Johnny Ray Vallejos, 18, entered a plea agreement Monday, admitting to second-degree murder, shooting at a dwelling, conspiracy and evidence-tampering.
Standing with his attorney, Vallejos said little at the expected change-of-plea proceeding aside from answering questions from District Chief Judge Douglas R. Driggers with a “yes, sir.”
Investigators had alleged that on Feb. 21, 2011, Vallejos fired at least 10 rounds from a .22-caliber rifle into a home at the Watson Lane Mobile Home Park.
That evening, officials said, Vallejos and the three others had planned to fire at the home of Andrew “Tuna” Martinez, a man who a day before had mortally wounded an Oñate High football player, Jerry Zamarripa, with a golf club.
But they were at the wrong address. They were at the home of Julian Peña, who suffered a gunshot wound near his head while sitting in a recliner and watching television. Peña, a Vietnam veteran and grandfather, died days later. He was 57.
Driggers accepted the plea deal, but did not sentence Vallejos on Monday.
That should happen in the coming months, prosecutor Jacinto Palomino said, upon the completion of two common reports. One of those will determine whether Vallejos, who was a 16-year-old Las Cruces High freshman at the time of the crime, could be treated as a juvenile.
Vallejos, who has three juvenile shoplifting convictions according to Sun-News archives, faces a maximum 29.5 years in prison, Driggers said.
A grand jury had indicted Vallejos on a first-degree murder charge. Had he been convicted on that charge, Vallejos could have faced a life sentence, which in New Mexico means 30 years before a chance of parole.
Palomino, a former district judge, said because Vallejos was a juvenile during the shooting that Driggers has discretion to lessen the sentence. That fact, plus dependence at trial on the testimony of the other three co-defendants and other factors, pushed prosecutors toward the plea agreement, Palomino said.
Peña’s son, Julian Peña, Jr., expressed some disappointment regarding the plea agreement.
“It feels like it doesn’t help, but it’s still a conviction,” he said.
Peña said he would have preferred that the defendants “man up” and go to trial, even if that opened the possibility a jury could acquit them.