Appearing in court for the first time in a case some are calling vigilante justice, a San Jose apartment maintenance worker accused of killing a suspected burglar seemed calm but bewildered Friday as prosecutors formally charged him with second-degree murder.
Luis Ricardo Hernandez, 26, shackled and wearing a jail-issue red jumpsuit, stood quietly, gazing just once toward the back of the Santa Clara County courtroom in search of a familiar face; an unidentified woman with tears in her eyes looked back at him in anguish.
During the brief hearing, Superior Court Judge Jerome Nadler ordered him to remain in custody without bail.
Hernandez is scheduled to return to court Jan. 18 to enter a plea in the case that unfolded Monday morning, when he allegedly shot dead Christopher Soriano, 36, in the parking garage of the Sunny Breeze Apartments near the Santa Clara County fairgrounds.
Soriano's death marked the city's 46th and final homicide of 2012, the highest number since 53 were recorded in 1991.
Some critics have blamed the surging homicide numbers in the Bay Area's largest city to deep cuts in San Jose police staffing and an exodus of officers to other agencies after voters sided with the mayor last June in a bitter public battle over pension reform. But the mayor and others have argued that pension reform and pay cuts were needed to avoid even deeper layoffs due to rising retirement costs.
Hernandez's attorney Nelson
"He's not a violent person," the lawyer said of Hernandez. "He's just a hardworking young man who was caught in a really unfortunate situation."
Hernandez's pastor, Mike Rodriguez, among about 10 friends and relatives who attended Hernandez's court hearing to show support, echoed that sentiment. Rodriguez said Hernandez did not have a history of violence and "has been shedding tears the whole time" since his arrest.
"Life was difficult" for him, Rodriguez said outside the courthouse. "But his character was exemplary in his whole time with me."
According to a San Jose police report, Hernandez shot Soriano after a scuffle between the two men and Hernandez's boss went awry.
The police report said the maintenance supervisor at the apartment complex at 200 Lewis Road recognized Soriano driving his truck into the complex parking garage Monday morning. The supervisor told police that Soriano was a suspect in prior burglary incidents there, and that he phoned Hernandez to help him make a citizen's arrest on Soriano.
The supervisor told investigators that the apartment complexes he maintains, including the Lewis Road location, have been plagued by burglaries. Despite frequent police reports, he said, the crimes have continued. The supervisor also told investigators that he didn't think police would respond in time, so he and Hernandez decided to confront Soriano and hold him until police arrived. When Soriano tried to flee, he was allegedly shot by Hernandez with a gun that police say was not legally purchased.
Police and court records portray Soriano as a career criminal with a history of theft offenses.
McElmurry said the Police Department's downsizing may have left citizens in a position where "they almost have to protect themselves." Yet police have stressed that residents should not intervene in crimes because of the potential for violence.
Investigators also say it is unclear what, if any, evidence Hernandez or his supervisor had to suggest that Soriano had burglarized the apartment complex.
"I don't know the facts of the case yet," said McElmurry. "But from what I am hearing from people in the social media, many people are feeling sympathetic (toward Hernandez.) He's confronted by a man who was committing a crime. It's a scary and difficult situation to be in."
Staff writer Howard Mintz contributed to this report. Contact Tracy Seipel at 408-275-0140.