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Gunman: Vergara told me to shoot men
Prosecutions star witness testifies in death penalty trial
Key witness Brigido “Topo” Soto testifies with help from court interpreter Melva A. Alvarado as the death penalty case of Ignacio Vergara continues in Superior Court Thursday. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

The admitted triggerman in a drug-related double homicide told a jury that the man on trial this week in Hall County Superior Court told him to pull the trigger.

"He signaled me to pull it," Brigido Soto testified Thursday through a Spanish-language interpreter.

Soto was the star witness in the prosecution’s death penalty case against Ignacio "Nacho" Vergara. Soto has pleaded guilty to murder in the March 13, 2002, shooting deaths of Alejandro Santana and Francisco Saucedo, two Gwinnett County men killed for 2 kilograms of cocaine on a remote South Hall road. Prosecutors allege Vergara planned and directed the killings. Soto agreed to a plea bargain that would see him serve two consecutive life sentences without parole for his testimony against Vergara.

Soto, answering District Attorney Lee Darragh’s questions while wearing jailhouse orange and handcuffs, stood and showed the jury the hand signal he claimed Vergara made — the simulation of a finger pulling a trigger. At the same time, Vergara told him in Spanish, "pull it," Soto said.

Soto testified he fired about eight rounds into the victims’ Mitsubishi Eclipse from a handgun Vergara gave him. Vergara spoke louder as he encouraged him to keep shooting, Soto said.

"(Vergara) kept telling you to keep firing the gun, to keep pulling the trigger?" District Attorney Lee Darragh asked Soto.

"Yes," Soto said.

Soto testified that Vergara gave him the gun during the drive to Bragg Road, an isolated dirt and gravel road near Flowery Branch. He said Vergara promised to pay him $21,000 to carry out the killings. Vergara planned to sell the cocaine for about $42,000, according to Soto.

Soto said Vergara gave him cocaine before the shootings, which he snorted.

"I was doing a lot, and he was telling me to keep doing it," Soto said.

During cross-examination by defense attorney Raymond George, Soto acknowledged that he was convicted of manslaughter for a fatal shooting in Smith County, Texas, in 1998. He served two years in prison before being deported back to Mexico. Soto later found his way to Raleigh, N.C., then Flowery Branch.

"Counting that case and this case, how many people does that make you kill?" George asked.

"Three," Vergara responded nonchalantly in Spanish.

George brought up the fact that his client never fired the murder weapon, a .45-caliber handgun.

"Isn’t it true that Vergara did not shoot anybody on Bragg Road?" George asked.

"Yes, but he was giving me the order," Soto said.

Later, George pressed Soto on whether he acted of his own free will.

"When you had the gun you were in charge that day?" George asked.

"Yes," Soto responded.

Jurors heard one interview and watched another that Hall County Sheriff’s investigators conducted with Soto nearly two weeks after the shootings. In them, Soto seemed forthcoming but emotionally detached from the shooting.

"Do you know what you’re under arrest for?" Investigator Gerald Couch asked Soto.

"Because I killed two people," Soto responded.

Later, while explaining how he shot the men through an open car door while Vergara stood nearby, Soto said he was uncertain who to shoot first.

"It’s difficult to kill two people," Soto told the detective. "You shoot one, the other knows you got a gun. I didn’t know what to do."

The victim in the driver’s seat continued to move after being shot, so Soto beat him in the head with the butt of his gun, he said. Soto and Vergara then searched for the cocaine, finding it in the driver’s-side floorboard in two duct tape-wrapped bricks. They left the murder scene in a Pontiac Grand Prix driven by Vergara, Soto said.

Soto lamented to detectives that after Vergara dropped him off at his apartment, he never saw Vergara or the cocaine again.

"I didn’t get nothing," Soto said in the 2002 interview. "I never saw no money."

Soto, who has spent the last six years in the Hall County Jail, will be sentenced by Judge John Girardeau after Vergara’s trial.

Testimony in the trial continues this morning.

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