Trial Begins for Fourth Defendant in 2018 South Bay ‘Crime Spree’ Case

Crime scene tape
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

As part of a string of violent crimes carried out mainly in the South Bay in April 2018, a man shot a young woman multiple times, leaving her paralyzed, a prosecutor alleged Monday.

Meanwhile, a defense attorney claimed that her client was being accused of crimes committed by others.

Opening statements and testimony were delivered Monday in the trial of Michael Pedraza, 33, who is charged with murder, attempted murder and kidnapping for his alleged role in two shootings, a stabbing, and the abduction and assault of a man, all of which occurred over the course of a few days in April of 2018.

Pedraza and his co-defendants allegedly took part in the fatal shooting of a man they believed was a police officer surveilling them in Chula Vista, kidnapping and beating a man they believed stole Pedraza’s wallet and stabbing another man at El Toyon Park in National City.

Just before those crimes got underway, the defendants allegedly abducted a 19-year-old woman, then robbed and assaulted her before taking her to Sunset Cliffs, where prosecutors allege Pedraza shot her and left her for dead.

Pedraza faces life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted of all counts.

Cesar Alvarado, 43, and Britney Canal, 34, were sentenced in 2022 to state prison for the killing of Mario Serhan, who the defendants mistakenly believed was an undercover police officer surveilling them in Chula Vista. They also pleaded guilty to the attempted murder of a woman who prosecutors said was kidnapped, then shot multiple times at Sunset Cliffs.

Earlier, another co-defendant, 33-year-old Francisco Aranda, pleaded guilty to other charges and was sentenced five years in state prison.

The woman, now 24 years old, testified Monday that her ordeal began when she met up with a friend with plans to sell drugs.

At the meet-up, Alvarado and Canal were also there and accused her of stealing from her friend. The pair robbed her of the drugs and her purse, she said.

A few days later, Pedraza, who she was previously acquainted with, reached out to her.

He said he had been chased by police and had to ditch a backpack filled with drugs and a firearm near a hotel in Chula Vista.

Pedraza asked her to retrieve the backpack, but when she went to the hotel, no backpack could be found. Pedraza later arrived with Alvarado and Canal, and the trio began accusing her of stealing the backpack, she testified.

The defendants then took her into an SUV, where Canal repeatedly shocked her with a stun gun, the woman said. The trio demanded she get them money to make up for the missing backpack and over the course of the next day, the woman was driven across south San Diego County while the defendants sought different ways to extract money from her.

Deputy District Attorney David Grapilon told jurors that at around noon on April 11, the defendants spotted an SUV parked behind them in a Chula Vista residential neighborhood.

The prosecutor said the defendants began “freaking out” and concluded the SUV’s driver must be a police officer.

But the driver, 59-year-old Mario Serhan, was not a police officer, but rather the owner of an electronics business who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, Grapilon said.

The defendants tailed Serhan throughout Chula Vista, pulled alongside him on Industrial Boulevard, and Alvarado shot Serhan in the head, killing him, according to the prosecutor.

The defendants continued to take the woman to several other locations that day, before eventually accusing her of stealing from them and “snitching” to police on a prior occasion.

Grapilon said that just after 2 a.m. April 12, the defendants took the woman to Sunset Cliffs and forced her at gunpoint to walk down a staircase leading down to the ocean.

As she begged for her life, Grapilon said Pedraza told her, “Shut the (expletive) up. Die with some dignity.” He then allegedly shot her in the ear, the neck and the leg.

Following the shooting, Pedraza and his co-defendants allegedly kidnapped a man from a San Ysidro motel, beat him, accused him of stealing Pedraza’s wallet, and threatened to take him to Tijuana and kill him.

A few hours after that, prosecutors say the defendants got into an altercation with a man at El Toyon Park, which resulted in Pedraza stabbing the man in the leg.

The defendants were later arrested following a police pursuit that stretched from San Ysidro to Alvarado’s home in National City.

Alvarado and Canal pleaded guilty last year to charges that include murder and attempted murder. Alvarado was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole and Canal was sentenced to 30 years to life in state prison.

Pedraza’s defense attorney Jill Cremeans argued there was no evidence showing Pedraza had any involvement in Serhan’s killing or the Sunset Cliffs shooting.

The attorney said Pedraza was simply riding in the car when Alvarado killed Serhan.

Cremeans also alleged the woman shot at Sunset Cliffs was a drug addict at the time and her memories of the incident were likely affected by drugs and shock.

The defense attorney said that since 2018, the woman has changed her story multiple times. In an earlier version of the events, the woman said she was shot in the back of the head, meaning she could not have been able to see the shooter, Cremeans said.

She urged jurors to scrutinize the woman’s credibility and take into consideration “whether or not my client should be held criminally responsible for the actions of other people.”