Walla Walla man pleads innocent to gang killing

Benito Gomez, charged with killing a rival gang member, is scheduled for trial in July.

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WALLA WALLA -- A Walla Walla man has pleaded innocent to killing a rival gang member and shooting at others in a confrontation last month.

Benito Gomez, 18, entered the not-guilty pleas Monday afternoon in Superior Court to charges of first-degree murder and six counts of first-degree assault.

His trial is scheduled for July 11-14. If convicted, he could be sentenced to life in prison.

Gomez is accused of the premeditated killing of Julio Cesar Martinez, 20, who was shot twice in the head about 6 p.m. May 17 in an alley in the 300 block of Myrtle Street.

Martinez died later that night at Providence St. Mary Medical Center.

Gomez was arrested May 21 and is being held in the County Jail on $1 million bail. A police report filed in court says he admits being a gang member and having been in the general area during the time frame of the shooting, but denies being involved.

Police say the killing -- the first gang-related homicide in the city -- occurred when what apparently was anticipated to be a more-routine turf battle turned deadly.

Gomez and three fellow gang members, including Michael I. Mercado, allegedly gathered to fight rivals because some had moved into their area.

The four covered their faces with bandanas and approached the rivals -- Martinez, Miguel Saucedo and Joseph Dejesus -- in addition to two other people not identified as gang members who were in the alley, according to the police report.

As Martinez, Saucedo and Dejesus apparently were preparing to fight, Mercado allegedly started throwing rocks. Then Gomez drew a handgun and fired several times, police said. Martinez was struck in the head by two bullets. Other victims fled, as did the suspects.

Police recovered four bullet casings at the scene, but the murder weapon wasn't found. Officials believe only one gun was fired.

The assault charges against Gomez include allegations he fired at Saucedo, Dejesus and other people in the immediate area.

Mercado, 20, of College Place, was arrested May 21 on suspicion of riot and three counts of second-degree assault. He was released from jail five days later pending further investigation. Formal charges against him have not been filed in Superior Court.

Officials have said Mercado may not have known the encounter would turn deadly.

Police presence in neighborhoods with known gang activity has been increased to discourage possible retaliation. Police spokesman Tim Bennett said Monday no major reprisals have been reported.

Terry McConn can be reached at terrymcconn@wwub.com or 526-8319.

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