The 17-year-old teen suspected of shooting and killing a 14-year-old boy in southeastern San Diego last week pleaded not guilty to murder charges and gang allegations in Juvenile Court on Monday.
The victim, Erick Balanzar Loeza, was walking home from school Jan. 31 when he was shot in his groin. He died later that day. Police said the shot was fired from a moving vehicle.
Five young people have been arrested in connection with the death, including the 17-year-old who made his first court appearance in the case Monday. Police and prosecutors say he is suspected of firing the weapon that killed Erick.
Although officials have not disclosed a motive for the shooting, the teen has been accused of committing the crime for the benefit of a street gang, court documents show. The San Diego County district attorney’s office said Monday that it is requesting that the 17-year-old be charged as an adult.
He will remain at Juvenile Hall while the case continues.
Three of the other suspects — Ethan Peaslee-Guerrero, 19, Bryan Escobedo, 18, and Omar Morales, 18 — have pleaded not guilty in Superior Court to murder charges and gang allegations.
A second 17-year-old was arrested in connection with the death and appeared in Juvenile Court last week, but the district attorney’s office declined to comment on the charges against him, saying only that his involvement remains under investigation.
Neither 17-year-old defendant was identified because they are being tried as juveniles.
Monday’s court hearing was held virtually. In addition to the teen suspect and his mother, the father of the victim was in attendance. Judge Tilisha Martin thanked the father for his involvement in the proceedings and apologized for his loss.
Although most Juvenile Court proceedings are confidential, state law allows members of the media to ask a judge to attend hearings involving young people accused of certain crimes, including murder. The San Diego Union-Tribune was granted permission to attend the Monday hearing, citing public interest in the case.
At a vigil held Saturday, Erick’s family called for justice.
“We want to make sure that no other family goes through this,” Erick’s aunt Emir Balanzar said. “It’s not fair for the parents. It’s not fair for the siblings.”
The fatal shooting occurred on 36th Street near J Street in the Mount Hope neighborhood about 4:30 p.m. Jan. 31.
Erick, a freshman at King Chavez Community High School, was headed south with a group of friends when at least one bullet was fired from a passing SUV.
Though the vehicle sped off, its license plate number was reported to police. The plate led officers to a Toyota Highlander that had been seen leaving a fight that had broken out down the street from San Diego High School an hour earlier, police said.
Less than an hour after the shooting, law enforcement found the SUV and took four teenagers into custody. On Wednesday, police arrested a fifth person — the 17-year-old suspected of firing the gun.
A GoFundMe account has been created to help the family pay for Erick’s funeral expenses.