“It was the night before Valentine’s Day, 2016, and people from all over had come to San Francisco to enjoy one of the most iconic places in the city to see the skyline: Twin Peaks,” District Attorney Adam Maldonado stated. “They brought blankets, and their significant others. The defendant, Mr. Contreras, brought a loaded semi-automatic weapon, an extended magazine, and a handful of bullets, which he shot into the bodies of three men.”
So began the trial of Richard Contreras, 29, in the deaths of Julio Peraza, 21, and Rene Mora, 19, along with the near-fatal shooting of Eric Morales, 18.
It should be a fairly cut-and-dry case. There are witnesses aplenty, video footage, and forensic evidence all tying Contreras to both the scene and the crime. But few cases are perfect, and several things are missing on both sides of the argument. In the trial’s opening statements Tuesday, Maldonado failed to provide a motive. Additionally, Contreras did not know the men before the incident occured, and the crime wasn’t believed to be gang-related.
And as Public Defender Kleigh Hathaway repeatedly told the jury, “the evidence is not tidy, it’s really messy.” She alleges that Contreras, who grew up in a violent home and who was regularly jumped, was acting in self-defense, and that the scene — “young men, testosterone flying” — made him scared for his safety, justifying his behavior.
The night had begun innocently enough. Contreras had a few drinks at Cava 22, a popular restaurant and bar on Mission near 22nd Street. He’d just begun dating Rosa Macias, who brought her friend Irene along. According to the prosecution, Irene — no last name given — began driving the trio toward Twin Peaks’ lookout a little before midnight, and this is where the trouble began. As Irene drove, Contreras allegedly started yelling at strangers out of the back seat of the car.
“What are you looking at?” he is said to have shouted. “What do you want?”
Twin Peaks was packed when they arrived; nearly every parking spot was taken. Contreras and Macias made out for a while, and then went to the main, circular viewpoint near the telescopes to see the view. It was there, according to both Macias and Irene, that he pulled out a gun — the first moment that either woman knew he had one — and pointed it toward a group of people.
At that point, things get hazy. Contreras was suddenly on the ground, and the two women fled toward Irene’s car. As they ran, they heard several shots being fired. In just a few seconds, Peraza and Mora were dead, and Eric Morales critically injured, suffering from a gunshot to his stomach.
His ride long gone, Contreras held a gun to the head of a man in a GMC Yukon Denali, forced him and his girlfriend out, and backed up, fast, crashing into another vehicle as he flew down Twin Peaks and away from the scene.
Irene and Macias went to Bayview Police Station the night of the incident and told the police everything, in what Maldonado calls the “first break in the case.” Contreras was arrested in Richmond, Calif., two days later, and the GMC was recovered nearby.
It appears Contreras has had a hard life. Born in Nevada to Mexican immigrants, he witnessed violence at home, as his father beat his mother. When he was a toddler his mom fled back to Mexico with him and his two siblings, where they spent a few quiet years. His dad later convinced them to come back to the U.S., and they settled in San Pablo.
Whether it was his thick Mexican accent, his petite frame, or just his demeanor, Contreras was regularly the victim of beatings. Just a few days before the Twin Peaks shooting, he’d been jumped by several men, one of whom clicked an empty gun next to his head. Contreras suffered a serious shiner to the right side of his face that was still there in his arrest photos. That, Hathaway claims, is why he had the gun on him that night.
Contreras’ hyper-defensiveness in the wake of his recent attack was triggered, Hathaway claims, by the young, drunk men at the scene. (Victims Peraza and Mora had blood alcohol levels of 0.18 and 0.11, respectively.) The six men and five women who’d driven to San Francisco from Santa Rosa had been there two hours at least.
But despite the large number of witnesses, statements are conflicting.
“There were 11 people up there, and nine remaining,” Hathaway told the jury. “Of those nine, no one says they saw how this started. Why is that? Do they have something to hide?”
It’s a hint at inconsistent witness testimonies to come, a prospect the defense will no doubt use to its advantage. And it is possible the group from Santa Rosa had something to hide — or, simply that based on past interactions, they’re very hesitant to talk to police. Almost all of them had rap sheets, too. Mora was convicted of throwing a bottle at a huge fight in 2014, and was found with four baseball bats (and no baseballs) in a car in 2015. Peraza robbed a store in 2011 and was later found in possession of a billy club. And Morales, who lived, had been charged with possession of a metal crescent wrench in 2011 (and, more recently, a loaded firearm). Surviving witnesses at the scene have charges ranging from assault to possession of deadly weapons. Further, everything appeared to happen so fast, people were so drunk, and the situation was so violent that it would be bizarre for inconsistencies not to emerge.
A 911 phone call made by 15-year-old Lizette Medina in the seconds after the shooting speaks to the chaos. She could barely talk in between hysterical sobs. “Please come now, we’re at Twin Peaks. Please, please!” she begged the operator. “Eric, Eric, please don’t pass out,” she called frantically to Morales.
The jury is in for a slew of evidence over the next couple weeks, as the carjacking victims, Macias, and other witnesses are called to the stand. But the most interesting witness of all will be Contreras himself, who throughout all of this has pleaded not guilty. It’s a risky move: As determined as his attorney is to convince the jury that the evidence is “messy,” she never once denied that he fired the gun that killed two young men.
But for the family who filled the courtroom Tuesday, the end of this tragic tale can’t come soon enough.
“I hope that he pays for what he did,” Mora’s sister Paulette Rivas said.