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Santa Rosa man handed life sentence for 2005 apartment shooting that left one dead, one injured

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A man who opened fire inside a Santa Rosa apartment 15 years ago, killing one man and wounding another, was handed a 74-years-to-life prison term this week, bringing closure to a case involving one of Santa Rosa’s most wanted criminals who avoided capture for a dozen years.

Ricardo Puentes, 42, was convicted by a jury in 2018 of second-degree murder for the killing of Semere Girmai and the attempted murder of Rafael Chavez, violence that police said spurred retaliation that left at least one other person wounded by gunfire.

Police investigators said the shooting was motivated by business disputes over cocaine and methamphetamine. Girmai, who grew up in Santa Rosa and graduated from Piner High School, was 27 when he was killed. Friends said he began selling drugs after losing his job with a local medical device company.

On Jan. 15, 2005, Puentes and two other men showed up at an apartment in Bennett Valley, interrupting a gathering that included Girmai and Chavez. At least one of Puentes’ companions had disagreements with Girmai involving drugs.

It was Puentes who opened fire shortly after their arrival in response to something Girmai said.

During his 2018 trial, Puentes took the stand and testified that Girmai said something threatening and began reaching for his waistband — ostensibly for a gun — so he shot at him out of fear for his own life.

Puentes and his companions fled, and he went into hiding, eluding law enforcement until his arrest three years ago.

One of Puentes’ companions quickly turned himself in but charges were dismissed for lack of evidence.

Another accomplice, Omar Chavez, was arrested in Florida in 2007. After two mistrials, Chavez took a plea deal for involuntary manslaughter and was released from prison in 2011.

In the ensuing years, police claimed Puentes returned to Santa Rosa to see family, disguised by weight losses and gains, a shaved head, long hair, and once dressed as a woman.

In 2011, detectives turned to the public, announcing a $2,500 reward for help in Puentes’ arrest and conviction. Puentes also was placed in the top 10 of the city’s “most wanted” list, which described him as being “armed and dangerous.”

For a time he was living in Mendocino County, growing marijuana, Santa Rosa detectives later said. In February 2017 they tracked him to a rural residence outside Redding, converging on the home with Shasta County sheriff’s SWAT team and FBI agents.

A Sonoma County jury convicted Puentes in June 2018 after a two-week trial. They opted for second-degree murder, which doesn’t require a finding of premeditation.

His sentencing was delayed because Puentes challenged the jury’s verdict, arguing that his attorney failed to call Chavez, a potentially important defense witness, to the stand. After lengthy proceedings, Judge Patrick Broderick in November denied his request for a new trial.

Broderick delivered the sentence Monday and commented on the “magnitude of the violence that took place,” according to the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office.

During Monday’s sentencing hearing, Girmai’s family submitted a statement to the court describing their grief, even 15  years later, according to the District Attorney’s Office. A resident of the apartment where the shooting took place also addressed the court and said she still had nightmares about the killing.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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