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A man who gunned down a drug rival in Santa Rosa 13 years ago and went on the run, avoiding capture through disguise and intimidation — and becoming one of the city’s most wanted criminals in the process — was convicted Thursday on murder and attempted murder charges that carry life prison sentences.

In 2005, Ricardo Puentes walked into a Bennett Valley apartment and shot two men, killing one, in what Santa Rosa police said was an execution‑style slaying motivated by a drug business feud. A Sonoma County jury convicted him Thursday of second-degree murder and attempted homicide.

Puentes, now 40, testified during the two‑week trial, admitting to shooting Semere Girmai, 27, but claiming self defense and fear for his own life, said his attorney, Kristine Burk.

After deliberating two days, the jury rejected prosecutors’ push for a first‑degree murder conviction but rejected Puentes’ claim of self defense.

Under the murder conviction, Puentes faces a 40‑year‑to‑life sentence and another life term for the attempted homicide, according to the District Attorney’s Office. He also was convicted of assault with a gun.

A feud among men with gang ties over distribution of cocaine and methamphetamine fueled the attack 13 years ago, police said.

On Jan. 15, 2005, Puentes and two others walked into a Bennett Valley apartment and approached Girmai, who was shot four times at close range in the head, face and chest, according to court records.

The other victim, Rafael Chavez, who was shot multiple times but survived, testified for the prosecution.

Witnesses the night of the slaying identified Puentes as the gunman, but he and the two others involved left the county, according to investigators. Behind them, they left a trail of violence, including a retaliatory strike that left another person shot and wounded, police said.

Detectives’ long, frustrating search for Puentes, who also went by Puentas, made him one of the city’s most‑wanted criminals.

At least four waves of violent crime detectives took up the case, following hundreds of tips. But Puentes slipped in and out of the county time and again to see family, often as detectives watched for him.

At times he disguised his appearance, using weight gain or loss, a shaved head or long hair, even dressing once as a woman.

“We had come really close over the years to finding him and had been just a step behind, which was really disheartening,” Santa Rosa police Sgt. Josh Ludtke said Thursday.

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 new “most wanted” list, which described him as being “armed and dangerous.”

But fear among potential tipsters hampered their success, according to retired Sgt. Steve Fraga who worked the case off and on from 2007 to 2012.

“I think he instilled a lot of fear in a lot of people. People were very reluctant to give him up,” Fraga said last year in discussing the case.

The chase ended in February 2017, with Puentes’ arrest at a rural residence outside of Redding by Santa Rosa police and the FBI.

Thursday’s conviction marked a welcome conclusion to the case, said Ludtke, who responded to the 2005 slaying and helped orchestrate the man’s 2017 arrest as head of the detective team.

Defense attorney Burk said Puentes had expressed remorse on the witness stand and admitted to being the gunman.

“But he did it out of fear. The jury apparently decided it was not sufficient fear and convicted him of second-degree murder,” she said.

“I’m disappointed,” Burk said. “I think they were right to see it wasn’t a first-degree murder. (But) there wasn’t enough evidence for the conviction they returned. He’s a 40‑year‑old man. The mistakes he made when he was 26 … he’s at risk for going away for the rest of his life.”

Girmai was raised in Santa Rosa and graduated from Piner High School.

Of the other two suspects in the shooting, one feared retaliation and quickly turned himself in, but charges were dismissed for lack of evidence. In 2007, the second accomplice was arrested in Florida. After two mistrials, Omar Chavez took a plea deal for involuntary manslaughter, got a five-year prison sentence and ultimately was released in 2011.

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707‑521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter@rossmannreport.

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