A man who fled to Mexico after a fatal gang dispute more than a decade ago has been found guilty of second-degree murder, the Santa Barbara County District Attorney's Office announced Monday.

Santa Maria Superior Court jurors on Friday convicted Leonel Torres, 36, for his role in the fight that led to the stabbing death of James Christie, a rival gang member from Santa Maria, near Roy's Liquor in August 2008. The jury also found a gang enhancement — which alleges Torres participated in the act for the benefit of a criminal street gang — to be true.

On Aug. 16, 2008, Torres and four other men — Arturo Palomar Jr., Jose Juan Morales, Francisco Rodriguez and Miguel Aguilera — were standing outside Roy's Liquor and Market in Guadalupe when Christie allegedly entered the store. Deputy District Attorney Lynmarc Jenkins, who prosecuted the case, claims Torres attacked Christie, who identified himself as "Wicked," a Northwest gang member from the Santa Maria projects, to uphold the gang's respect.

Footage captured on video surveillance cameras shows Torres, Palomar and Morales attacking Christie outside the liquor store, while Aguilera and Rodriguez attempted to stop the confrontation from escalating. At the end of the confrontation, Palomar stabbed Christie in the chest with a knife he retrieved from his vehicle.

Christie was transported by ambulance to Marian Regional Medical Center, where he was later pronounced dead.

The four men were charged with murder on Aug. 22, 2008 in connection with Christie's death. Palomar was subsequently sentenced to 26 years to life for first-degree murder, while Morales Jr. received 15-to-life for second-degree murder.

Rodriguez, who agreed to testify against his former co-defendants, received five years probation.

Though Torres was not the one who stabbed Christie, Jenkins maintained he acted with conscious disregard and should have known his actions endangered the life of another person.

“Torres calls shots for his gang, yet he did nothing to call off the attack," Jenkins wrote in a brief outlining his case against Torres. "Instead, when others tried to call it off, he persisted in the group attack on Christie."

Torres, who faces 15 years to life in prison for his role in the stabbing, will appear for sentencing on July 8 before Judge James Voysey.

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Reach reporter Mathew Burciaga at 805-739-2205 or mburciaga@leecentralcoastnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @mathewburciaga



Mathew Burciaga is a Santa Maria Times reporter who covers education, agriculture and public safety. Prior to joining the Times, Mathew ran a 114-year-old community newspaper in Wyoming. He owns more than 40 pairs of crazy socks from across the globe.