Trial in 1996 murder case begins 24 years after deadly gang shooting

More than two decades after a shooting left a 26-year-old man dead at the end of a Long Beach alley, prosecutors say they have enough evidence to convict the man they believe pulled the trigger.

At 10:30 on the night of May 4, 1996, Jorge Martinez was shot to death near 14th Street and Linden Avenue. Crime scene photos show him lying face up on a sidewalk. At his feet is an empty plate that had been holding the food he was eating. There’s money sticking out of his pocket, meaning robbery likely wasn’t a motive, prosecutors said.

Police investigated the shooting but detectives couldn’t find witnesses and the case eventually went cold.

“Police resources were different then,” prosecutor Delanee Hicks told a jury as trial began Thursday morning.

More than two decades after the killing, cold case detectives opened it up again and started investigating when new information identifying the suspect came to light, police said in a news release announcing the arrest in 2015. Hicks did not explain what that new evidence was Thursday.

The suspected killer, Wayne Taufi, was already in custody on unrelated charges, authorities said. Taufi pleaded not guilty to the charge of murder then and has been awaiting trial since. Taufi, who police say was known as “Big Fassi,” would have been 21 at the time of the shooting.

Hicks said that Taufi was a member of the Suicidals subset of the Sons of Samoa street gang and was “running the alley” that Martinez was found in. One witness who testified on Thursday, Ivy Lewis, told the court that he bought crack cocaine regularly from Taufi and another gang member known as KO for about four months prior to the shooting. According to prosecutors, they sold the drugs out of an alley-adjacent home where victim Martinez’s girlfriend lived.

The night of the killing, Martinez—who lived nearby—was walking down the alley with his girlfriend eating a plate of food her sister had made for him, Hicks said. Martinez had just asked his girlfriend if she wanted to go to the movies that night and she went back home to grab her jacket when she heard gunshots and blacked out, police said.

“She was scared; she’s gonna tell you that,” Hicks said to jurors.

Two days later, her home was shot up and she moved in with Taufi’s sister for a few days before moving out of California, according to Hicks.

Lewis testified he was walking down the alley to find Taufi when he saw a group of men surround Martinez and challenge him with “where you from?” meaning which gang is he from. When the victim said, “I don’t know,” another man said Martinez was from BP, or the Barrio Pobre street gang, and told Taufi to “regulate,” Lewis said. Lewis said he heard the shots ring out and immediately ran away in fear.

As Lewis testified, Taufi, now 45 years old, listened intently through a court hearing aid, sometimes with an incredulous expression on his face.

Taufi’s defense attorney, Kevin McGurk, pointed out that there have been inconsistencies in Lewis’ story since police originally interviewed him more than 20 years ago. In addition, McGurk pointed out, Lewis said he saw the shooter point the gun at the back of Martinez’s head, but the wounds show he was shot from the front.

McGurk also questioned police’s handling of evidence. In his opening statement, he said police only found three bullet casings at the scene of the shooting, but the evidence box now holds six bullet casings and no one knows where the extras came from.

“That’s what happens when boxes sit on shelves for 19, 20 years,” McGurk said.

He also questioned the motive for the shooting, noting that Martinez’s girlfriend was friends with Taufi’s family, even allowing Taufi to sell drugs out of her house.

McGurk ended his opening statement by adding there is no physical evidence linking Taufi to the shooting.

At the time of the arrest, police said they were still searching for more information on the four other male suspects who were allegedly there when the murder occurred. They identified them by their street names: Wizard, Lil Boy, Fuzzy and Whisper.

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Valerie Osier is a breaking news and crime reporter for the Long Beach Post. She’s a Riverside native who found her love for journalism while at community college. She graduated from Cal State University, Long Beach journalism program in 2017 and covered the Palos Verdes Peninsula for the Daily Breeze prior to coming to the Post. She lives in Long Beach with her husband, Steven, and her cat/child, Jones.
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