When Maria Angel thinks about the last time she saw her younger brother, it brings tears to her eyes.
It was the night of Jan. 8, and Juan Carlos Angel-Esparza, 20, was lying mortally wounded on the grounds of Kawana Elementary School in southeast Santa Rosa.
He had just been stabbed in a gang fight and the 22-year-old sister rushed from the apartment she shared with him nearby to see what happened.
"I was there before the ambulance arrived," said Angel, tearing up. "Somebody called me. I ran over. He couldn't really talk," she said Monday, after attending a hearing at the Sonoma County courthouse.
Her brother later died from a direct stab wound to the heart. His accused killer, Raul Vega, 19, also of Santa Rosa, was arrested two days later and charged with first-degree murder.
On Monday, a shackled Vega was in court, along with three co-defendants in a separate gang-related slaying in Contra Costa County.
Angel and her mother wore T-shirts with Angel-Esparaza's image on them and waited for any update from prosecutors.
A preliminary hearing was expected to be set in a Tuesday hearing, for sometime in April.
"He deserves whatever punishment possible that he can get," Angel said of Vega.
Police said the Kawana killing arose from a growing rivalry between subsets of the same sureno gang feuding over the Moraga Drive territory.
Witnesses said Vega and Angel-Esparza, both gang members, squared off near the baseball fields sometime around nightfall as three others stood by. They scattered at the sound of sirens. Police arrived to find Angel-Esparaza unresponsive. Two knives were recovered.
The killing raised concern in the neighborhood about growing violence. A community meeting brought neighbors, police and school officials together.
In the wake of the killing, Vega was charged with being the shooter in a Jan. 12, 2010 killing of Vallejo musician Dewey Tucker, 24. Authorities said Vega mistook him for another gang rival.
Also charged in the slaying are Christopher Mancinas, 29, Hector Barragan, 28 and Javier Carreon-Lopez, 20, all of Santa Rosa. All three were in court Monday. Mancinas had tattoos on his face and neck including the word sureno over one eyebrow.
Prosecutors said the two killings are somehow linked but they have yet to disclose details. Because of gang allegations and other special circumstances, the cases could bring the death penalty. The district attorney has not announced if she will seek the death penalty.
Angel-Esparza grew up in Santa Rosa in a family of three brothers and two sisters.
He went to grade school in Roseland but moved to the Southern California town of Coachella to live with his father during high school, his sister said.
He returned to Sonoma County to get a job and attend Santa Rosa Junior College, the sister said. He shared an apartment across the street from Kawana school with his sister, her three children and her husband, she said.
She said she was unaware her brother was caught up in gangs.
"I didn't know anything until all this happened," she said.
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