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Manslaughter plea brings '97 drive-by case to an end
Juan Bayona sentenced to 20 years in Athens Street slaying
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A feud between rival street gangs 12 years ago that ended in a fatal drive-by shooting prompted the creation of a police task force that is still on the job today.

But though members of the Gainesville-Hall County Gang Task Force succeeded in lowering the level of gang violence seen in Gainesville in the 1990s, they doubted they would ever catch the man whose gunshots got them started.

On Friday, the former fugitive who in February 1997 shot and killed a man in a Burger King parking lot pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and received a 20-year prison sentence in a negotiated plea agreement in Hall County Superior Court.

Juan Bayona, 30, a U.S. citizen, fled to Mexico shortly after the shooting death of 19-year-old Rigo Verduzco in the parking lot of the Burger King on Athens Street. Bayona remained a fugitive until last year, when he was turned over to the FBI by Mexican authorities.

Bayona, who was 17 at the time of the shooting, was a member of the Brown Side Vatos, or BSV, while Verduzco was known to associate with members of the rival Puchachos gang.

In the months leading up to the shooting, the level of violence seemed to grow with the animosity between the two gangs, authorities said.

"Whenever members of the two gangs saw each other, senseless violence would result," Hall County District Attorney Lee Darragh said.

Several nonfatal shootings involving the Puchachos and BSV members occurred in 1996 and 1997, and large fight between the gangs members broke out at a Taco Bell restaurant in January 1997, Darragh said.

On Feb. 16, 1997, a Sunday afternoon, Verduzco was standing in the Burger King parking lot among friends when a red car passed by and the driver fired three shots from a handgun.

Struck once in the chest with a .40-caliber bullet, Verduzco turned to his friends, said, "They got me," and collapsed. He died soon afterward.

Authorities were surprised last year when Bayona, who was indicted on a murder charge in 1997, was turned over to the FBI in February 2008 after his arrest in Mexico during a domestic disturbance.

"My first reaction was, ‘Oh my goodness, how are we going to pull together the evidence in a 12-year-old case,’" Darragh told Judge Kathlene Gosselin during Friday’s plea hearing.

But Gainesville police and investigators with the district attorney’s office soon located several people who were willing to testify at trial, including two eyewitnesses who would positively identify Bayona as the shooter.

Darragh said, however, that the defense could present evidence that the fatal shooting stemmed from escalating violent confrontations between the two gangs.

The BSVs were shot at by Puchachos a few weeks prior to Verduzco’s death. Moments before the shooting, the car that Bayona was driving was approached by Puchacho gang members who "ran toward the road, shouting obscenities, throwing gang signs and acting in an aggressive manner," the prosecutor said.

Darragh said the defense may have been able to show that Bayona and another man in the car feared for their safety and had "serious provocation to sufficiently excite passion in a reasonable person," part of the legal definition of voluntary manslaughter.

Darragh said he discussed the case with the victim’s family before agreeing to the plea deal. More than a dozen of Verduzco’s family members, including his mother, father and siblings, were in court for the guilty plea.

"They certainly would have loved to have seen a murder conviction and a life sentence, but they understand what we’re doing today and they support what we’re doing today," Darragh said.

Verduzco’s girlfriend at the time of the shooting, Roxanna Cervantes, told Gosselin, "We’ve been waiting for this for such a long time."

"Please bring us closure and punish this person for doing what he did and breaking so many people’s hearts," Cervantes said.

Bayona addressed the court, apologizing to the victim’s family and saying he was "so young, on drugs, scared," when he fled the country.

"To the family ... I am asking them to find in their hearts to forgive me, just as God has forgiven me," he said.