The family of a Gainesville man shot to death in a drive-by shooting 11 years ago got their first look Thursday at the man accused of his murder, bringing some relatives of Rigo Verto Verbuzco to tears.
Juan Bayona, 29, was arraigned in Hall County Superior Court on charges of murder, aggravated assault and street gang activity in connection with the Feb. 16, 1997, fatal shooting of Verbuzco, 20, in the parking lot of the Burger King on Athens Street.
Verbuzco’s mother and others among the nine family members in the gallery wept as Bayona was led into the courtroom by deputies.
Bayona entered a plea of not guilty before Judge Kathlene Gosselin through his attorney, public defender Brad Morris.
The victim’s sister said after the brief court hearing that family members were hopeful Bayona would admit guilt and forego a trial, "so we don’t have to go through this again."
"It has been emotional for everybody," Blanca Verbuzco said.
She said when her family learned of the suspect’s arrest, "We were happy and sad at the same time. You wait for this moment."
Bayona, who authorities say is a U.S. citizen, was extradited from Mexico in January after Mexican authorities responding to a disturbance at his home in the province of Durango discovered he was wanted on a charge of murder.
Another suspect in the shooting, Arturo Elizalde, remains at large.
Bayona was 18 at the time of the shooting. Police said at the time that he was a member of the "Brown Side Vatos" street gang and that Verbuzco was a member of the rival Puchachos gang.
Verbuzco was shot once in the midsection with a .40-caliber handgun fired from a red Toyota rental car, police said.
Assistant District Attorney Juliet Aldridge told Gosselin the state has been contacting witnesses who have moved away since the murder.
"There will be a number of witnesses to be gathered, potentially from all over the country," Aldridge said. "The state is already working on that."
Gosselin said she wanted the case tried before the end of the year.
"I realize this case is extremely old ... so we don’t want to delay it much further than we have to," the judge said.
The victim’s sister said afterward that she was confident in a conviction, despite the age of the case.
"We have the witnesses we need," she said.