After housesitting for a neighbor, last Aug. 13 in the Chantilly Meadows community, a 16-year-old Chantilly boy began walking across a parking area to see his girlfriend.
But he never made it. Instead, he was jumped by five teen-agers from Falls Church — all part of Fairfax County's notorious Mara Salvatrucha gang. They attacked him, stole his wallet and fled.
Last Friday in Circuit Court, the main assailant, Romulo Mendoza, 19, of 3048 Patrick Henry Drive, was sentenced to two years in prison. Although he could have received anywhere from one day to six months for his crimes, Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Penny Azcarate asked Judge Dennis Smith to sentence him above the state sentencing guidelines.
"The defendant targeted this victim for gang reasons, and they beat him up and took his money," she said. "He's a danger to the community, and this case requires — not months [behind bars] — but years and years."
Three of the assailants that night were 16-year-olds; Mendoza and one of the others, Elmer Andrade, were then 18. The incident occurred between midnight and 12:30 a.m.; the victim had just left a trailer on United Drive and was walking on Airline Parkway when he was brutally attacked and robbed of more than $100.
Afterward, the teens drove away in a white Toyota station wagon. But the victim knew two of them, so he was able to call police, describe their car and report that his attackers usually hang out in the Falls Church area. Police responded and spotted the car on Arlington Boulevard near the Seven Corners Shopping Center.
The victim identified the five suspects, and police arrested them all — charging each with robbery. Andrade told authorities that there was bad blood between them and the victim and that they all participated in the assault.
When Andrade pleaded guilty, on Oct. 29, Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Dennis Fitzpatrick explained what happened that night to the Chantilly boy. "Five young Hispanic males confronted him — he knew two personally," said Fitzpatrick. "They begin yelling things at him, including 'MS13' — short for [Mara Salvatrucha]. Mendoza punches him in the face and breaks his nose. He's knocked to the ground and is kicked numerous times."
On Dec. 6 in Circuit Court, Andrade was sentenced to six months in jail. Last Friday, Feb. 21, it was Mendoza's turn. His robbery charge had been plea-bargained to larceny from the person, and he'd also been charged with unlawful wounding. On Nov. 20, he was found guilty of both crimes.
A Spanish-language interpreter appeared with him in court Friday, while defense attorney Gary Greenbaum pleaded for a six-month sentence for one charge and probation for the other. He told Judge Smith that Mendoza "did what he did for the stupidest of reasons — to impress a gang and be one of them."
But he also noted another of Mendoza's statements. "Anyone who tells a probation officer that he's glad he got locked up so he can change his ways is either overly dramatic or completely sincere," said Greenbaum. "I suggest it's the latter."
Then Mendoza stood and, speaking through the interpreter, said, "I feel guilty for what I have done. I am sorry, and I regret it from the bottom of my heart." But, knowing quite a bit about Mendoza's criminal history, Smith wasn't buying the young man's remorse.
"This is a serious crime," he said. "People have to feel free to walk around the streets of Fairfax County without gangs of youth knocking them down and taking their money. We can't have a society like that." The judge then explained why he wasn't going to let Mendoza off the hook as lightly as his attorney would have liked.
"What equally concerns me is that — just 15 days prior to this incident — you'd been sentenced in this very court[house] for carrying a concealed weapon, forgery and uttering [passing a forged document] and destruction of property," said Smith. "That indicates to me more extensive involvement with a gang."
He then sentenced Mendoza to five years in prison on each charge, with three years of each sentence suspended. He ran the sentences concurrently so Mendoza would have a total of two years to serve. He also placed the teen on three years probation upon his release.
As for Mendoza's previous convictions, on July 29, 2002 in General District Court, Judge Ian O'Flaherty sentenced him for offenses committed July 1. For carrying a concealed weapon, Mendoza received six months in jail, with four months suspended. O'Flaherty also gave him a 60-day, suspended sentence for trespassing.
On Aug. 20 in General District, Judge Mark Simmons gave Mendoza a 180-day, suspended sentence for a March 18 shoplifting offense. Then on Aug. 27, Judge Michael Cassidy sentenced Mendoza to 180 days in jail, suspending 140 days, for a charge of obstruction of justice (to which the forgery and uttering charges had been reduced). Cassidy also gave him a 30-day, suspended sentence for destruction of property.
All in all, prior to Mendoza's appearing before Smith in Circuit Court, three lower-court judges had sentenced him to a total of three months and 10 days in jail for six crimes. And the time Mendoza spent in jail while awaiting his court appearances on those charges was deducted from that amount.
After Friday's sentencing, Greenbaum said he believes his client "wants to go straight" and has "had his fill of [criminal behavior] and tasted the consequences." However, he also noted that, "In all likelihood, [Mendoza] will probably serve his sentence and then be deported to [his native country of] El Salvador" because he's been convicted of a violent crime.
He said Mendoza came to the U.S. at age 15 and was a sophomore at J.E.B. Stuart High School in Falls Church prior to his arrests. Regarding Smith's actions on Friday, Greenbaum said, "I believe the fact that my client struck the first blow was a factor in the judge's sentence."
Actually, said Greenbaum, knowing that the maximum penalty possible for a crime of larceny from the person is 20 years in prison, he expected Mendoza's punishment to exceed the sentencing guidelines. Said the attorney: "It was more than I'd hoped for, but less than I'd feared."