The three men slain outside Golden West High School were the likely victims of an attempted robbery, according to a police probable cause report obtained by the Times-Delta.
On May 5, 2020, police found three men dead with gunshot wounds. Two victims — 19-year-old Jose Hernandez-Peña and 18-year-old Blake Medeiros — were inside a car. The third victim, Isaiah Rule, 18, was found a short distance away with multiple shots fired into his back and one into his head.
Questions surrounding the teens' late-night rendezvous in the parking lot have lingered since their killings were first reported. Police documents reveal that the trio had likely traveled to the school to "purchase or sell narcotics" but were not involved in any gang activity.
Last week, three men — 20-year-old Abraham Molina, 20-year-old Mark Aceves and 19-year-old Cesar Lopez — were arrested and charged with the deaths. Molina pleaded not guilty to the crimes at a Jan. 18 arraignment. Aceves' and Lopez's arraignment on Tuesday was continued to Feb. 8 with no plea.
The accused killers are known Sureño gang members who were looking for "licks," or targets who they could rob for drugs or money, prior to the deaths, according to the Jan. 8 probable cause report. A probable cause report is required for a judge to authorize an arrest warrant.
No firearms were found on the victims or in their car. There is no reason to believe that the three victims were involved in the street gang activity or any robberies based on information contained in the report.
"Our deepest sympathies to the families who've been impacted by this terrible crime and who lost their loved ones that night," Visalia Police Chief Jason Salazar said at a press conference last week announcing the arrests of the suspects. "No family should have to endure a loss like that."
'Robbery gone wrong'
On Aug. 16, 2020, an anonymous tipster told police that Molina was responsible for the parking lot killings. The tipster said that the fatal shootings were a "robbery gone wrong," according to the report.
The tipster later met with detectives as a confidential informant to provide more information. The informant told police that a close friend of the suspected driver, Lopez, told the informant that Lopez dropped off Molina "to commit a robbery on the victims and parked down the street. They said something happened and (Molina) shot the victims."
The informant told investigators that they were "in fear for their life" after meeting with police due to the suspects' ties to the violent southern street gang.
Surveillance footage shows Lopez's truck, a blue GMC Sierra, stopping at an intersection near the high school 10 minutes before the killings. Tulare County deputies later placed a tracker on the truck. Law enforcement eventually intercepted associates of Lopez attempting to dismantle the truck after Lopez's father reported it stolen.
The day after the shootings, the three suspects visited an unidentified person's house. Molina allegedly told the resident, who detectives interviewed but did not name in their report, that he "got involved in something in a parking lot the night prior."
Molina told the police source that "one of the guys (victims) was reaching for something, so he began to shoot," according to the report, adding that he shot "two or three individuals." Police records indicate that Molina chased one of the fleeing victims and shot him in the head.
Separate tipsters told police that a southern criminal street gang member known as "AB" was responsible for the deadly shootings. Police identified Molina as "AB" and began to monitor his cell phone and multiple social media accounts.
Snapchat location data placed Molina within yards of the scene of the slayings at the approximate time of the shootings, according to court documents. Surveillance footage from the school and a nearby gas station showed the victims' car, a Chevrolet Cruze, pulling into the parking lot.
Investigators found a single Snapchat message from Molina to Hernandez with an address near the high school sent about 15 minutes prior to the meeting. Police believe the three victims were meeting Molina for a drug deal.
Police found three bags containing approximately an ounce of marijuana each in the victim's car. Rule's girlfriend told police that he was going with Medeiros to "purchase narcotic pills," according to the report.
Text messages between Medeiros and his girlfriend shortly before his death revealed that he was going to sell marijuana. Medeiros' family provided photographs to investigators showing him holding a bag of marijuana and pills with the caption "Who need it."
Hernandez, the third victim, also told his girlfriend prior to his death that he was going to finish selling his "sack," referring to a bag of marijuana, according to the probable cause statement. Hernandez illegally sold marijuana, according to his girlfriend.
Following the shootings, two men fled the scene on foot, according to surveillance footage obtained by investigators. The footage did not contain enough detail to identify the suspects.
Investigators noted that Molina's social media accounts were linked to sales of .40-caliber weapons and additional robberies. Several messages showed Molina brandishing a .40-caliber pistol and other weapons, drugs, and gang signs. A .40-caliber weapon was used to kill the victims
It's unclear if the gun used in the crime was found.
Court records show that Molina continued committing robberies following the Golden West deaths. An associate, Luis Zacarias, asked Molina on Snapchat if they were going to "go and shoot [deleted expletive] up" in October 2020.
Molina responded that they were not going to "pop a n—" but that they got the "green light" to jump and rob somebody who may have been holding drugs and $4,000 in cash, according to the report.
Aceves also manufactured and sold ghost guns through his social media accounts, the report states. He was arrested on separate weapons charges in November 2021.
The investigation, prompted by the deaths and dubbed Operation Trailblazer, revealed a larger, international drug and weapons trafficking ring.
Tulare County detectives served 53 search warrants and seized 14,763 marijuana plants, 773 pounds of processed marijuana, 53 firearms, $358,000 in cash, and $300,000 in assets during the five-month investigation.
Joshua Yeager is a reporter with the Visalia Times-Delta and a Report for America corps member. He covers Tulare County news deserts with a focus on the environment and local governments.
This article originally appeared on Visalia Times-Delta: Accused killer continued robbing people after shooting at Golden West