Auburn teen pleads guilty in gang-related slaying

EVERETT — Just as he was to face trial for pulling the trigger in a 2006 gang-related shooting, a teenager pleaded guilty Monday to murdering an Everett teen.

Jermaine Lewis, 19, of Auburn, had a last-minute change of heart even as potential jurors gathered a few floors below him in the Snohomish County Courthouse. Instead of putting his fate in the hands of a dozen strangers, Lewis decided to plead guilty to second-degree murder in the shooting death of Dennis Riojas, 19.

He faces up to 20 years in prison. His sentencing is scheduled July 15.

Prosecutors on Monday had planned to tack on additional charges, including tampering with a witness, before proceeding with jury selection. The other charges could have added nine years to Lewis’ sentence if he were convicted, Snohomish County deputy prosecutor John Stansell said.

The possibility of additional prison time weighed on her client’s mind, Everett attorney Karen Halverson said.

“I think he just decided the risk was too high and it was in his best interest to plead guilty,” she said. “It’s tough. He’s only 19.”

Lewis entered a plea that allowed him to avoid admitting any wrongdoing. Instead, he acknowledged sufficient evidence existed to ensure a jury would convict him.

Prosecutors didn’t expect Lewis to change his mind, Stansell said.

Perhaps Lewis had second thoughts when he realized some key witnesses had shown up at court to testify against him, Stansell said.

In the years since Riojas was shot, investigators have struggled to get witnesses to cooperate with the investigation, the prosecutor said.

Snohomish County sheriff’s detectives also had to sort through a conspiracy from a group of people who attempted to frame another man for Riojas’ death. Prosecutors initially charged that man with the murder but dropped the charge after investigators learned others agreed to blame him for the shooting to protect themselves and friends.

The shooting was believed to be tied to a gang-related dispute between young men who got into an argument at an outdoor basketball court in south Everett a week before Riojas’ death, court documents show.

The dispute escalated first into drive-by gunfire, with Lewis firing a single shot at Riojas and another person in south Everett. No one was hurt. Then came threatening telephone calls, documents show.

Riojas arrived home Aug. 5, 2006, to find several people waiting for him. He jumped out of a car and tried to scale a fence near his home. He was shot in the back.

His body was found a couple hours later in a planting area behind an apartment building in the 700 block of 124th Street SW. His family eventually moved from their south Everett apartment out of fear of more violence.

Riojas was slain in the same neighborhood where a recent drive-by gang shooting left an Everett teen injured. Police believe members of MS-13, a violent street gang, shot at that boy in retribution for a shooting in Seattle in February. Three people were arrested, including a north Everett woman who is believed to be a recruiter for the gang.

Reporter Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463 or hefley@heraldnet.com.

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