A dispute over missing jewelry may have been the motive behind the shooting death of a 35-year-old Los Banos man, according to police reports.
Rene Cruz Sandoval was found shot in the chest Sept. 13 in an alley in the 300 block of H Street in Los Banos and died at the scene.
Four men have been charged in connection with the homicide: Charles F. Lujan, 59, of Gustine; his brother, Steven A. Lujan, 55; their nephew, Ronnie R. Lujan, 34, of Merced; and Ronnie Lujan’s cousin, Tony Lujan III, 27, of Gilroy, who is alleged to have been the gunman.
The four suspects pleaded not guilty to murder charges Nov. 30.
According to police reports, the Lujan brothers had borrowed a trailer from Cruz Sandoval to store their belongings after they were evicted from their Gustine home. Cruz Sandoval took the loaded trailer to his home Sept. 9 and stored it there for four days, according to suspect and witness statements.
During that time, Steven and Charles Lujan stayed at nephew Ronnie Lujan’s home while figuring out where to go.
Kristina Ann Cardoso, the victim’s girlfriend, told police that Cruz Sandoval said Steven Lujan called him Sept. 12 and accused him of taking a jewelry box belonging to the suspect’s mother, which Cruz Sandoval denied.
In an interview with police after his arrest, Ronnie Lujan said he, his two uncles and a man named Phillip drove to Los Banos on Sept. 13 to confront Cruz Sandoval.
Ronnie Lujan said he got out of the car, a tan 2007 Chrysler 300C, and aggressively told Cruz Sandoval that he should hand over the stolen property or pay him money.
Ronnie Lujan told police Cruz Sandoval then said to contact someone named Mike for the property and added, “You can beat me up or shoot me.” That’s when the the man named Phillip pulled out an “old and beat up” rifle and shot Cruz Sandoval.
The four suspects then got into the car and left the scene, Ronnie Lujan told police, adding that he “asked Phillip, what the (expletive) are you doing? I was pissed off!”
Police arrested Ronnie, Steven and Charles Lujan the next day at a home in the 1300 block of Frankfort Court in Merced.
In police interviews, Steven and Charles Lujan denied being in Los Banos on Sept. 13. The brothers said they were together picking up cans in Merced.
However, in addition to Ronnie Lujan’s interview, witnesses and surveillance video near the crime scene placed all four suspects in the vehicle in Los Banos.
On Sept. 15, Ronnie Lujan’s wife contacted police and said her husband had told her a few hours after the shooting that Tony Lujan III was the gunman.
“Once they got there, Ronnie said an argument began between Rene and the four of them,” she said, according to reports. “Ronnie punched Rene just before Tony shot him in the arm.”
In subsequent police interviews, Ronnie Lujan wouldn’t identify Phillip as Tony Lujan III, according to reports.
Authorities say Ronnie Lujan identified himself as a Norteno gang member and that gang affiliation is the reason he declined to identify Tony Lujan III.
On Sept. 17, authorities served a search warrant at a home in the 700 block of Dartmouth Place in Gilroy. Tony Lujan III fled the scene but was captured in the backyard of a neighboring property and arrested, police said.
A pre-preliminary hearing in the murder case is scheduled for 1:30 p.m., Jan. 11, in the Robert M. Falasco Justice Center in Los Banos.
Vikaas Shanker: 209-826-3831, ext. 6562