Five of the seven Virgin of Guadalupe candles still flickered on the stoop of the trailer, protected from an afternoon rain by a sheet of plywood.
For days after the beating death of 68-year-old Ramon Hernandez, residents of the East Ridge Mobile Home Park gathered outside his empty home each night and held a short prayer vigil for the murder victim.
“Everybody has been out there praying for his soul,” one resident said through an interpreter. The mother of four children declined to give her name for fear of reprisal. “Because what happened to him was so horrendous, we have to pray so that his soul can go to heaven.”
Two teenagers have been charged in connection with Hernandez’ murder, and a third is being sought. Two of the suspects are 16, making them juveniles in the eyes of the law for most criminal charges, but not murder.
Authorities say they are gang members, but their gang is in Athens, not Gainesville.
“I’m wondering what they were trying to do,” said John McKey, a resident of the mobile home park off Marlow Drive since 1990 who lives a few dozen feet from the scene of the murder. “Were they trying to get a reputation? Whatever it was, they screwed themselves up.”
Robbery motive suspected
Residents said Ramon Hernadez was a short, portly, clean-shaven man most often seen walking through the mobile home wearing a baseball cap, helping the mobile home park’s maintenance man with odd jobs.
“I called him ‘Poppy.’ I didn’t know his real name,” said McKey, a Vietnam veteran who works security for a nearby Fieldale Farms poultry plant and is one of the few non-Hispanics now living in the mobile home park. “He was just a quiet guy. He would help clean up yards, get trash up, help with maintenance.”
“He would stop by and ask if we needed help with anything,” the mother of four said. “He just walked around peacefully. I don’t understand why this happened.”
Hall County Sheriff’s officials say robbery was the motive in Hernandez’s murder, though they have declined to say whether anything was taken.
“He was targeted for robbery,” Hall County Sheriff’s Col. Jeff Strickland said. “We believe (the three suspects) knew someone who knew him, but we don’t believe they knew him.”
Hernandez died of blunt force trauma from repeated blows to the head, according to arrest warrants. Residents said he was bound during the beating, a detail officials would not confirm.
The death was discovered on the morning of Thursday, March 18, but investigators believe he was murdered on the previous Tuesday, according to arrest warrants. A maintenance man who came to get him for a job found his body.
Officials have not discussed what led them to charge Daniel Vilchis-Ayala, Nelson Vaca and Brian Martin Rivera in the murder, but a car belonging to Vilchis-Ayala’s sister was seized in Athens and impounded as part of the investigation.
Of the three suspects, Vilchis-Ayala and Rivera are charged with murder and Vaca is charged with party to the crime of murder for allegedly driving them from the scene, according to arrest warrants.
Authorities have brought other charges. Vilchis-Ayala, who was born in Mexico, is charged with violation of immigration law for allegedly being in the country illegally. The other two suspects are natural-born U.S. citizens.
Vaca is charged with violation of the Georgia street gang terrorism act. Authorities say all three are members of the Sur-13 gang of Athens.
Sur-13 has a presence in Gainesville, but it is not believed the three suspects have connections with the Hall County faction, Capt. Woodrow Tripp said.
One suspect still sought
One of the three murder suspects was already being sought by Athens-Clarke police after a March 18 raid on an Athens apartment that turned up 29 firearms, most of them stolen.
Rivera, who remains at large, was one of two people sought by police and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents after searching the home of Arturo “Scarface” Santoyo-Aviles, Athens-Clarke Police Capt. Clarence Holeman said.
“Basically the information was developed that (Rivera) was the one who had the guns,” Holeman said.
Many of the guns were traced back to burglaries in Madison and Barrow counties, Holeman said.
Barrow County Sheriff’s officials have investigated a killing also believed to be committed by an Athens gang member in recent weeks and proved instrumental in helping identify the three suspects in the Gainesville murder, Tripp said.
“They already had them in their gang database,” Tripp said.
Said Strickland, “When you have a gang from outside the community come in and commit a crime, it makes solving it extremely difficult. But with the help of the Barrow County Sheriff’s Office and Athens-Clarke police, we were able to make arrests quickly.”
Residents said there have been no indications of a gang problem at East Ridge Mobile Home Park.
“I moved here because a friend told me how quiet it was,” the mother of four said. “Now look what’s happened.”
“I still can’t get over this,” said McKey, the murder victim’s neighbor. “To have something like that happen under your nose, it takes something out of you.”