Fear eclipsed relief when a judge acquitted a North Aurora woman of murder Tuesday, but then issued a $100,000 material witness bond to compel her to testify against a member of her gang.
Sixteenth Circuit Judge James Doyle acquitted Melissa Sandoval, 19, on 15 charges, including four counts of murder, in connection with the fatal shooting of Eric Johnson, 18, of Aurora, IL 1999.
Defense attorney Kathleen Colton said Sandoval was relieved over her acquittal. But that relief was mixed with fear after the prosecutor decided to make her a material witness in a codefendant’s trial.
Kane County Assistant State’s Attorney Sal LoPiccolo requested that Sandoval be held on $100,000 bail as a material witness because he said Sandoval clearly intended to leave the state after the trial. Sandoval is a key witness in the trial of accused murderer Jesse Martinez, whose case is pending, LoPiccolo said.
Sandoval was not required to post 10 percent of the bail. She was released on a signature bond after she agreed to appear at upcoming hearings, including Martinez’s next appearance Feb. 22, If she fails to appear, she would be arrested and held in lieu of the $100,000 bail.
Sheriff’s deputies said it was expected that Sandoval would be released from jail late Tuesday afternoon.
Colton and Sandoval’s family continued to believe that Sandoval’s life was in danger. Last week, gang members beat up a witness in the murder case. The witness reportedly fled the state. The attack adds credence to the Sandoval family’s fear, Colton said.
LoPiccolo said he would contact Aurora police about the safety concerns.
“Obviously, I don’t want anyone hurt,” he said. “My objective is to have justice served and to make sure the person who committed the murder does not walk out the door.”
Sandoval named gunmen
At her trial, Sandoval named Patrick Inocencio, now 18, and Martinez as the gunmen who blasted their way into the Howard Johnson Hotel room in North Aurora on Feb. 13, 1999, killing Johnson and then turning their guns on the five witnesses inside the room.
Four of the witnesses were injured by gunfire. Two were shot in the head at point-blank range, according to testimony.
LoPiccolo said Sandoval’s identification of Martinez is an important part of the prosecution of that case. Inocencio pleaded guilty last year and received a 20- year prison term for the murder. He also received a 12-year term on various other counts, to run consecutively. Inocencio is appealing his plea.
LoPiccolo said he felt if Sandoval were released, she would flee the state because she testified she’d been trying to have her juvenile probation transferred two weeks before the shooting.
Sandoval was a member of a female fringe gang whose members associated with Inocencio and Martinez’s gang. She testified that the gang members went to the Howard Johnson on the day of the shooting to continue a party that started at a Naperville hotel. Inocencio and Martinez were among the partygoers.
Later that morning, Sandoval’s fellow gang members became aware of a rival gang down the hall. Inocencio and, Martinez entered the rival gang’s hotel room and had a brief confrontation. Testimony showed that Sandoval didn’t know about the confrontation.
Inocencio testified last week that, after the confrontation, he made Sandoval drive to his Aurora house, where he picked up two guns.
Sandoval testified she felt something was going to happen as she drove back to the hotel and realized the men had guns. But she wasn’t sure what was going to happen, she testified, and she did not have any knowledge of a plan and did not play a role in the shooting.
Chilling testimony from killer
Testimony at the weeklong trial included chilling statements by Inocencio.
Doyle said lie’s never seen a murderer laugh at a photo of a dead victim, as Inocencio did last week. He described Inocencio,16, at the time of the shooting, as a cold-blooded killer whose case could provide “a strong argument for the death penalty.”
Doyle also addressed the issue of accountability. The prosecution charged Sandoval under an accountability theory, alleging her actions before the shooting contributed to the commission of Johnson’s murder. The key question was her intent before or during the shooting, Doyle said.
He explained the similarities of Sandoval’s case to an Elgin case, People vs. Perez, in which an Elgin gang member, Victor Perez, was convicted of murder under the accountability theory. Prosecutors said Perez identified the victim, Pedro Gonzalez, as a rival gang member. A member of Perez’s gang then murdered Gonzalez as a result of what turned out to be a wrong identification, prosecutors said.
Doyle presided over Perez’s bench trial and found him guilty. The Illinois Supreme Court overturned the conviction last February.
But the facts of the Perez case did not come close to paralleling Sandoval’s situation, Doyle said.
“I always tell jurors you must follow the law, even if you disagree. That applies to me,” he said. “This case mandates- a finding of not guilty of all counts.”