Murder defendant takes plea deal in 2021 Watsonville slaying

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By Yosi Yahoudai
Founder and Managing Partner

SANTA CRUZ — A man charged with a 2021 roadside slaying outside Watsonville pleaded no contest to first-degree murder ahead of his preliminary hearing this week.Juan Almaraz Rios was among three arrested nearly four months after the death of Abel Ruiz III, 21, of Castroville. Ruiz was found on the night of Oct. 17, 2021, lying on the side of the road and suffering from a gunshot wound near Carlton and Coward roads, south of Watsonville. Nearby, a white BMW was parked where it had been driven off the road.
The Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office arrested Rios and two juveniles, ages 14 and 15, on suspicion of murder in early February 2022. Because the two alleged accomplices were underage at the time of the slaying, their names and court proceeding outcomes are unknown.
Rios, a 22-year-old Watsonville man, was set to go before a judge Tuesday to determine if he would face trial in the case. However, during a hearing confirmation conference Thursday, Rios instead opted to plea to charges of first-degree murder and a felony special enhancement for causing great bodily injury while personally discharging a firearm. Per a negotiated plea deal with Santa Cruz County District Attorney’s Office Assistant District Attorney Nick Sympson, an earlier charge of robbery and an extensive list of additional special enhancements initially filed against him in this case will be dropped, including firearm enhancements that cannot be stacked to add additional time to a sentence, Sympson said.
With the remaining charges, Rios faces two 25-years-to-life prison sentences set to be served consecutively, for a total 50-years-to-life sentence, per terms of the plea deal. He is set to appear before Santa Cruz County Superior Court Judge Denine Guy for sentencing at 1:30 p.m., April 12.

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About the Author
Yosi Yahoudai is a founder and the managing partner of J&Y. His practice is comprised primarily of cases involving automobile and motorcycle accidents, but he also represents people in premises liability lawsuits, including suits alleging dangerous conditions of public property, third-party criminal conduct, and intentional torts. He also has expertise in cases involving product defects, dog bites, elder abuse, and sexual assault. He earned his Bachelor of Arts from the University of California and is admitted to practice in all California State Courts, and the United States District Court for the Southern District of California. If you have any questions about this article, you can contact Yosi by clicking here.