OAKLAND (KTVU and wires) -- Two reputed gang members have pleaded no contest to second-degree murder for beating a 21-year-old Union City woman to death four years ago and then dumping her body near a freeway and setting it on fire.
Salvador Valasco, 26, and Hector Garcia, 35, were both charged with murder and the special circumstance of committing a murder during a kidnapping in connection with the death of Monica Rodas-Alfaro in Oakland on July 14, 2011.
Their long-delayed case was finally scheduled to go to trial next month and they could have faced life in prison without the possibility of parole if they'd been convicted of the most serious charges against them.
But prosecutor Danielle Hilton said the Alameda County District Attorney's Office agreed to let them plead no contest to second-degree murder and face a lesser term of 15 years to life in state prison because a key witness in the case died.
Hilton said it's possible that Valasco and Garcia could be paroled some day but she hopes the state parole board never releases them because of the gruesome nature of their crime.
Hilton said Rodas-Alfaro's family members, who wore T-shirts in court today saying, "Justice For Monica," wanted Valasco and Garcia to receive the maximum sentence possible but agreed to the plea bargain because they know the case against the two men was circumstantial.
At the preliminary hearing for Valasco and Garcia in September 2012, Oakland police Sgt. Steve Nowak testified that an autopsy determined that Rodas-Alfaro died from blunt force trauma to her head and that her body was set on fire after she already was dead.
Prosecutors didn't specify an alleged motive for the brutal attack, but Nowak said that witness Pablo Ahumada told him that Garcia and Valasco were trying to get Rodas-Alfaro to tell them who had robbed Garcia in a previous incident.
Ahumada testified at the 2012 hearing that he and Rodas-Alfaro were among a small gathering of people who were smoking methamphetamine and marijuana at a house at 3131 Nicol Ave. in East Oakland early the morning of July 14, 2011.
Ahumada said Rodas-Alfaro was arguing with Garcia and Valasco but he wasn't sure what the argument was about until a man walked in, made fun of the situation and told Rodas-Alfaro to "tell them who it is."
He said Valasco bound Rodas-Alfaro's hands with plastic wrap, gagged her and covered her head with a sweater so she couldn't see.
Ahumada said Garcia then grabbed a torch and told Rodas-Alfaro that he would burn her.
He said Garcia and Valasco then carried Rodas-Alfaro, who was the mother of a boy who is now 3 years old, out of the house and drove off.
Ahumada said he didn't stop the two men from abducting Rodas-Alfaro because Garcia was armed with two guns and at one point mockingly asked him what he was going to do to stop the attack.
Rodas' body was found at about 4:40 a.m. that day in the 5800 block of Ivanhoe Road in Oakland's Rockridge neighborhood, near a state Highway 24 off-ramp, after a resident called police to report a burning body in the street.
Attorneys for Garcia and Valasco said at a hearing on Friday that the two men would accept the plea agreement. But when the two men appeared in court their attorneys said they weren't ready to enter their pleas.
Alameda County Superior Court Judge Paul Delucchi expressed frustration, saying, "We've played around long enough."
After talking to their attorneys for a while, Garcia and Valasco then agreed to plead no contest. Garcia appeared to cry as he entered his plea, as he wiped his eyes with the sleeve of his yellow jail uniform.
Garcia and Valasco are scheduled to be formally sentenced on July 17.