Two young men who pleaded guilty to killing two teenagers at a community park in Oceanside will spend decades in prison, a judge ruled Friday.
Martin Melendrez, 25, and Santo Diaz, 22, were sentenced in a Vista courtroom Friday for the 2013 shooting deaths of Edgar Sanchez Rios, 16, and Melanie Virgen, 13.
Melendrez, who pleaded guilty to murder, was sentenced to 40 years to life behind bars without probation. Diaz, who pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter, received a sentence of 39 years.
On the night of March 13, 2013, Rios, Virgen and two other teenagers were gunned down at Libby Lake Park in the 500 block of Calle Montecito in Oceanside. Rios and Virgen died, while the other two teens, including David Garcia, survived the shooting.
According to prosecutors, Virgen and Sanchez were killed in retaliation to gang activity.
Diaz and Melendrez were two of four young men charged in the slayings. Others included Michael Zurita and Kevin Brizuela. The men were all arrested a few weeks after the park shooting.
Inmate records indicate Brizuela’s next court appearance is scheduled for June 3.
In December 2015, a judge found Diaz not guilty of two counts of first-degree murder. A mistrial was declared for Diaz on two counts of attempted murder. His sentencing Friday was for voluntary manslaughter charges.
More than 50 people packed the gallery at Friday’s sentencing, including family members of both the defendants and victims.
Melendrez and Diaz both addressed the court, Melendrez through a statement read by his attorney.
That statement read, in part: “I'm remorseful for the event and for the loss of innocent lives. [There are] no words to make it right or take pain away. I hope and pray in time they can forgive me.”
Diaz turned to the families of the victims are said this: “I’d like to apologize for your losses; I’m very sorry for what happened. I did not shoot.”
Some of the victim’s family members walked out of the courtroom as Diaz spoke.
“I’m changing,” he added. “[I] want to be someone successful.”
Diaz’s attorney claimed his client was not the shooter in this case and was not involved in planning the shooting at the park.
Diaz’s mother also spoke, asking for forgiveness from the victims’ families on behalf of her son and family.
“I just want to say sorry. My son, I love you and I'll be waiting for him, the mother said.
Diaz’s sister, Sonja Diaz, spoke as well, saying the shooting has caused pain for many families.
“It has broken many hearts,” said Sonja.
Loved ones of the victims also addressed the court, including Sanchez’s cousin, who said the teen loved cooking, “had a heart of gold” and adored his friends and family. He asked the judge to give Melendrez and Diaz to the maximum sentences for cutting Sanchez’s life short.
“[Edgar] didn’t get a chance to graduate,” the cousin added.
Sanchez’s mother, Georgina Sanchez, also spoke in court.
“I came to say thank you for justice being done. I come here destroyed. I have not been able to recover,” Georgina said. “It seems like it was just yesterday.”
Sanchez’s sister, Nataly Sanchez, told NBC 7 she did not feel Diaz’s apology was sincere.
“I don’t believe he was sorry – [that] he’s sincerely sorry,” Nataly said. “Melendrez, I do believe is sorry. It’s hard for me to forgive him. I accept [Melendrez’s] apology and I believe it was sincere but I just, I can’t say, ‘Yes, it’s okay that you took my brother.’”
Meanwhile, Virgen’s cousin told the court the teens were “so young, so full of life” and described Virgen as wise, strong and outgoing.
Garcia, one of the survivors of the shooting, also addressed the court and offered forgiveness.
“Everybody makes mistakes; people are suffering. I'm not angry with you. I do forgive you,” Garcia said. “What you did, it’s not going to go unpunished. Whether you shot or not, you were there.”
“I forgive you since the day I woke up,” Garcia added. “I forgive every single one of you.”
The deadly shooting at the park deeply rattled Oceanside residents, many still reeling from another round of deadly violence in their community, at that very same park two years prior.
On May 3, 2011, the bodied of teenagers Fernando Felix Solano, 16, and Sandra Salgado, 14, were found shot to death near Libby Lake Park.
A community impacted by gang activity, Oceanside continues to rebuild after the violent tragedies, promoting a better life for youth through mentoring programs such as the Vista Community Clinic’s Project REACH.
The group has hosted “Celebration of Life” gatherings at the park on the anniversary of the Libby Lake shootings to bring residents together to remember the young lives taken too soon and encourage the bright futures of teens who still live in the area.
Garcia spoke with NBC 7 in March 2015 about how the violence changed his life and community.
Now a student at Mira Costa College, Garcia said the shooting made him realize that making Oceanside a safer and better place is possible. The incident gave him a second chance at life, he said, and hope for the future. Garcia now helps mentor youth through Project REACH.
According to Project REACH, Libby Lake Park is starkly different than it was three years ago. Today, Oceanside youth have taken back their park, playing and enjoying the space instead of living in fear.