Joshua Steward left Gresham the night of Jan. 16, 2021 in his girlfriend’s Toyota Camry, headed for Northeast Savage Road in Salem.
He had arranged to buy $340 of cocaine, according to testimony by Salem police detective Jamie Vasas in a Marion County Juvenile Court hearing May 2. Steward’s girlfriend Amaretta Rice rode with him, hoping to stop at In-And-Out Burger in Keizer on the way back home.
The pair pulled into a parking lot in front of Hoover Elementary School in northeast Salem around 8 p.m.
After Steward messaged his contact on Snapchat, a man wearing a mask and hoodie exited the car in front of them and walked up to their passenger side window. But he didn’t resemble the person they’d arranged to meet.
“Quick exchange?” he asked, as Rice recounted in court. “Quick exchange,” Steward responded, reaching for cash.
At that moment, Rice saw the silver barrel of a revolver a foot-and-a-half in front of her face, then heard three shots.
“It happened within a blink of an eye,” she said at the hearing.
Steward, 24, would be pronounced dead at the scene. Rice, 22, suffered serious injuries, including a gunshot wound to her head.
The ensuing criminal investigation resulted in a landmark case for Marion County.
Gerardo Trujillo-Torres - 16 at the time of the incident - was arrested Jan. 29, 2021 and charged with Steward’s murder in juvenile court, according to reporting from the Oregonian/OregonLive.
He is the first teen Marion County prosecutors have argued should be tried in adult court since the passing of Senate Bill 1008 in 2019.
The new law gave judges discretion on whether to charge teens 15 and older as adults for violent crimes.
Previously, those charged with violent crimes were automatically treated as adults, meaning they were prosecuted in adult courts and received the same sentences as their older peers. Teens convicted of violent crimes would go to an Oregon Youth Authority facility in lieu of state prison, but if they didn’t finish out their sentence before turning 25, they finished it in the adult prison system.
The reform allowed for a “second look” hearing before someone convicted ages out of the youth system and into the state Department of Corrections, allowing them to argue they have been reformed and shouldn’t serve time in prison. It also blocked the state from being able to sentence a minor to life without parole.
It’s part of a broader push in recent years to to shift the state’s criminal justice system toward rehabilitating youth, instead of lengthy and costly prison sentences.
But prosecutors can also file a motion to request a hearing and argue to have a case moved from juvenile court to circuit court if it involves a violent crime.
Marion County prosecutors argued in juvenile hearings that Trujillo-Torres had adult-like sophistication which allowed him to understand the nature of his actions.
Deputy District Attorney Brendan Murphy said during closing arguments on May 6 that the teen admitted to being involved in a gang.
His attorneys argued he was less sophisticated than his peers and had the capacity to change. Being transferred to the prison system, they said, would make him more likely to reoffend in the future.
The decision fell to Marion County Circuit Judge Lindsay Partridge of whether to set Trujillo-Torres’ next court date in juvenile or adult circuit court.
Following the hearing, Partridge told Salem Reporter that the state had “proved the necessary elements” to have Trujillo-Torres be prosecuted in circuit court.
A case had not been filed in circuit court as of Thursday. The state must next present the case to a grand jury unless Trujillo-Torres’ attorneys waive their right to do so. He would then be arraigned.
The Marion County case is the second in the state where prosecutors have prevailed in getting a teenage defendant’s case moved to circuit court since the new law passed, Murphy told Salem Reporter.
Rice said at the May 2 hearing that she had never met Trujillo-Torres.
After hearing three shots and her head being pushed to the side, all she remembered was seeing Steward put the car in drive. Then, she blacked out, according to her testimony.
Steward was found dead in the driver's seat after crashing into a tree near Hoover Park in northeast Salem. After investigating his death, Salem police said Steward had been shot at the park, causing him to crash his car nearby.
Surveillance video from a duplex showed a man police identified as Trujillo-Torres ran west, crossed the street and then ran southbound toward Northeast D Street.
A nearby resident told police she opened her door and saw a man stop briefly in front of her apartment on Northeast Savage Road. He was talking on a phone while holding a handgun in his left hand, tucked under his armpit.
“I shot that fool,” she recalled hearing him say over the phone. The neighbor later identified Trujillo-Torres as the person she saw outside her apartment.
In February 2021, three men were indicted by a Marion County grand jury on charges related to Steward’s death.
Frederic Ferguson, 23 of Salem, and Rayshawn D. Strickland, 24 of Eugene, were both charged with first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, two counts of conspiracy to commit second-degree murder, two counts of solicitation to commit second-degree murder, delivery of cocaine, posession of cocaine and money laundering.
The charges allege the men paid Trujillo-Torres to kill Steward.
Salem detectives found about $17,000 in cash in the bedroom of Ferguson’s Salem home, according to Vasas’ testimony.
Chad A. Pomelow - the man Steward believed he was meeting in Salem - was charged with conspiracy to commit second-degree murder.
Ferguson was booked Jan. 23, 2021, into the Marion County Jail. Six months later, he had a “medical emergency” the evening of July 16 at the jail, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office said in a news release at the time.
He died at Salem Hospital after deputies and emergency medical technicians were unable to save his life, the release said.
The state Medical Examiner's Office ruled the manner of death to be accidental and caused by "acute fentanyl toxicity" with a contributing heart condition, said Sgt. Jeremy Landers, sheriff's office spokesman, on Thursday.
Salem police arrested Strickland and Pomelow on Feb. 19, 2021.
Pomelow, 21, pleaded guilty on Sept. 20, 2021, to conspiring to murder Stewart. Marion County Circuit Judge Channing Bennett sentenced him to seven years and six months in state prison and three years of post-prison supervision. He was also ordered to pay more than $3,300 in restitution to the victims.
He was in custody at Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution as of Thursday, and his earliest release date is in September 2028.
A trial in Strickland’s case is scheduled to begin Jan. 17, 2023 in Marion County Circuit Court.
Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.
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