La Oferta

December 6, 2023

Grand jury testimony of the Soto-Mesa death raises more questions than it answers

June 26, 1996

By Yolanda Reynolds

Photos by Mary J. Andrade

La Oferta Newspaper.

For those attending the Santa Clara Grand Jury hearing of the death of Gustavo Soto Mesa raises far more questions than it has answered. The differences from the early news accounts of the incident differ greatly regarding the events that led to his death on State Street this past March 2.

Last Thursday there was a surprise witness when Alianza Metro News publisher George Villalobos was challenged by District Attorney, Dale Sanderson regarding a quote of Soto’s father. The quote was used in the title of an article detailing eyewitness accounts reported in that newspaper following Soto’s death. The DA questioned the assertion that the elder Soto made that his son’s death was an “execution” at the hands of the police.

The DA also wanted Villalobos to reveal his sources, who in the article, were identified simply as “eye-witnesses.” Villalobos responded to the request by making one himself, which was that the D.A. provide him with a list of the witnesses in order to allow Villalobos to contact those

people who might not been on the list. Vlllalobos explained that the witnesses that he had interviewed had asked not to be identified for fear of police retaliation for their words. Villalobos explained that he had every intention of keeping his promise to them but that in reference to the DA request he would be willing to call these witnesses and they could then contact the D.A.’s office and decide whether to come forward as witnesses.

Villalobos pointed out that calling him in as a witness had served to quiet him from writing more about the death of Soto since he, like other witnesses to the hearing. Were admonished that they were not to discuss their testimony with others including other witnesses.

The questioning of the witnesses was detailed, repetitive and at times confusing. At one point Sanderson confronted a witness, sixteen-year old Marla Moreno, for commenting over the lunch break, that he was trying to confuse her with his style of questioning. Without batting an eye, she responded “yes.” Hearing this, the jury members broke out in audible laughter. Both she and her boyfriend, Fabian Osorio, who also testified appeared to be credible witnesses. They both indicated that Soto was not in a fast run as he leapt off a parked boat but that he walked at a slight fast pace that was not quite a jogging motion and that Langley was in close proximity when they heard a gun go off and Soto fell.

They both said that they heard words appearing to ask Soto to stop only one time but not as he turned north on State street away from the officer now identified as Langley.

Though there were slight differences in the testimony of Osorio and Moreno the DA never asked their relative positions as they peered out onto the street from their second story window. Their room was in a home on the street slightly south of the location where Soto was shot.

Following their testimony, the County Coroner. Dr. Angelo Ozoa was called to the witness stand. His testimony caused numerous members of the general public to grouse among themselves at break time over the seemingly biased conduct of this office in carrying out the autopsy and coroner’s report.

Dr. Ozoa explained that he did not begin his autopsy until he had a detailed report from the police regarding the events surrounding Mesa’s death. His ‘expert’ evaluation of the range at which the gun was fired contradicted that of a ballistics expert, Edward Peterson, who had testified the day before. Peterson estimated that the gun had been fired at a range of approximately six inches. Ozoa adamantly said that the shot had been discharged at a range beyond over two and half feet front Mesa. He never did reveal at what range he thought the gun was actually fired.

Ozoa spent some time describing evidence of “stippling” a residue of minute abrasions from gun powder that indicate a shot at close range. When the DA observed, the tell-tale marks described by Ozoa in the Coroner’s photo of Soto’s head, Ozoa angrily indicated that he did not know what these markings were but that he did know that it was not stippling. Shortly afterwards the DA asked for a short break even though a County official reminded him that there was no time left for a break. Two witnesses were later brought in and asked to return the following day.

Last Thursday the witnesses including a San Jose firefighter, Terry Coman, who also placed the deputy, identified as Tom Langley in very close proximity to Mesa. Langley on Friday denied deliberately firing at Soto.

Ozoa, at age 68, was appointed to head the County Coroner’s office in 1993 by the County Board of Supervisors. Since that time there have been numerous problems in that department. In 1994 the Grand Jury found that the department was suffering from such severe budget cuts that its level of competency had declined as well as their efficiency. Complaints have been made of such incidents that bodies had seemingly been forgotten in the morgue and that deceased next of kin were not notified even though they lived in the area. In another

instance, a body remained hanging in a school yard for three hours because the coroner was too busy and was uncertain if it was a suicide or a homicide. In the meantime, grade school children were kept in the classrooms and not allowed out for recess while the body hung front a tree in the playground.

The jury heard testimony until this past Tuesday. They will be making a decision either to indict officer Langley or to accept his claim that this was an accident after deliberation from which the public is excluded. The Mesa family has obtained the services of a San Francisco lawyer, Stanley J. Bell a specialist in personal injury wrongful death cases. © La Oferta Newspaper.