Trial date pushed back in murder-for-hire plot

McALLEN — Three people accused of participating in a 2018 murder-for-hire plot will have to wait a little bit longer to have their day in court.

The announcement came Monday morning during what should have been a final status conference before a jury is selected for Viola Elizabeth Garcia, Christopher Andrade and Ronaldo Gallegos. The trio were charged with one count each of racketeering-murder for allegedly conspiring to murder a person identified in court records only as “F.U.F.” in exchange for $20,000.

The murder plot stretched from Texas to Oxnard, California and was hatched between July 12, 2018 and Aug. 30, 2018, according to court documents.

Garcia and Gallegos were also charged with two counts each of carrying, brandishing and discharging a firearm while committing a violent crime, according to the second superseding indictment against them.

Two others — Noah Antonio Solis and Diego Morales — were also charged in the murder-for-hire scheme but have since pleaded guilty. Both await sentencing.

Federal prosecutors said they were prepared to proceed with the trial against the three remaining defendants, adding that they expected to present their case-in-chief within 3-4 days.

In previous court filings, the defense said it would need about a week to rebut the prosecution.

However, the case — which had originally been set for trial in late 2018 before seeing multiple pandemic-related delays throughout 2020 and 2021 — was once again pushed back after Andrade’s defense attorney, Rafael de la Garza III, failed to show up for court Monday.

In a notice filed shortly before court convened, de la Garza said he was unable to attend due to flu diagnosis. As a result, the court was forced to grant yet another delay.

However, the three defendants will not be tried together once that day comes.

That’s because both Andrade and Gallegos filed — and were granted — motions to have their trial severed from Garcia’s.

The pair allege that Garcia made incriminating statements that could irrevocably prejudice a jury against them should all three be tried together.

“According to the Government’s Discovery Responses… Viola Elizabeth Garcia, made an incriminating statement against Defendants Christopher Andrade and Ronaldo Gallegos, after her arrest,” reads Andrade’s motion to have his trial held separately.

“The statement prejudiced Defendants Christopher Andrade and Ronaldo Gallegos,” it further reads.

U.S. District Judge Ricardo H. Hinojosa agreed, granting the motion for a so-called “Bruton severance” in July 2019.

Andrade and Gallegos aren’t the only ones who have a problem with Garcia’s statements to law enforcement, however.

Garcia, herself, filed a motion to suppress the statements she made to Mission police and the FBI in August 2018.

Garcia claims law enforcement coerced her to incriminate herself after she had been read her Miranda rights and had asked for an attorney. But the judge rejected the motion, meaning the government will be allowed to present those statements to a jury.

Federal prosecutors also plan to introduce surveillance footage from several stores in Oxnard, California, as well as records from a commercial bus line and rental car agency.

The jury may also see evidence from the defendants’ cell phones and social media accounts, bank records, and recorded jail calls, according to court documents.

At various points between July 2019 and March 2022, each of the three defendants notified the court of their intent to plead guilty to the charges. Prosecutors had even gone as far as drafting a plea agreement for Gallegos in December 2021.

However, all three have since reasserted their rights to trial.

All three defendants face up to 10 years in federal prison and a fine of up to $250,000 if convicted on the first count of the superseding indictment — using interstate commerce facilities in the commission of murder-for-hire.

Garcia and Gallegos additionally face up to 10 years in prison, as well as a mandatory minimum of five years in prison, if convicted on counts 2 and 3 of the indictment, respectively — carrying and discharging a firearm while committing a violent crime.

Counts 2 and 3 also carry a potential fine of up to $250,000.

Trial dates for the three defendants have yet to be set.