SAN JOSE -- Supporters rallied Friday to urge prosecutors to drop a murder charge against a San Jose man who shot and killed an alleged burglar in a vigilante act that made him a folk hero to residents frustrated with a shrinking police response to lower-level crimes.

A Change.org petition was launched by family and friends of Luis Ricardo Hernandez, 26, who is being held in Santa Clara County Jail on $1 million bail in the death of 36-year-old Christopher Soriano of San Jose.

Hernandez was a maintenance worker at the Summer Breeze apartments when on Dec. 31 he and a supervisor reportedly tried to perform a citizen's arrest on Soriano, who they suspected of burglarizing cars at the complex. In an ensuing physical confrontation, police said, Hernandez shot Soriano, who later died.

Luis Ricardo Hernandez enters court at the Santa Clara County Hall of Justice in San Jose Friday, Jan. 4, 2013. Hernandez was arraigned following his Dec.
Luis Ricardo Hernandez enters court at the Santa Clara County Hall of Justice in San Jose Friday, Jan. 4, 2013. Hernandez was arraigned following his Dec. 31st arrest in the shooting death of Christopher Soriano. Hernandez, the maintenance man for Lewis Road apartment complex, is alleged to have attempted to detain Soriano on the suspicion Soriano was responsible for a string of burglaries committed at complex. Frustrated by what Hernandez felt was the slow response of San Jose Police, he allegedly shot Soriano when the man attempted to flee before police arrived. (Patrick Tehan/Staff) ( Patrick Tehan )

The online petition garnered more than 500 signatures as of Friday. Family spokesman Gina Gates said the defendant, who on Friday postponed a plea entry, was trying to thwart a series of crimes given short shrift by a budget-starved police force. He is due back in court Feb. 15.

"Ricardo is not the pebble in the pond. He's part of the wave it caused," Gates said.

Authorities see things much differently, with police admonishing vigilantism even in lean staffing times and prosecutors filing a murder charge.


Advertisement

"We acknowledge that it may take us a while to get to a property crime like an auto burglary depending on what else is going on in the city," said outgoing police Chief Chris Moore in a recent interview. "I'm somewhat disappointed that people are treating this person as a folk hero. In my opinion, he's not. I understand the frustration. But that doesn't give someone the right to take a gun out and take the law into their own hands."

Brian Welch, who supervises the District Attorney's homicide unit that is prosecuting the case, had similarly strong words.

"My office is prosecuting Luis Hernandez for the murder of Christopher Soriano because the current facts show that at the time of the shooting Mr. Hernandez had no legal excuse or justification for using deadly force on an unarmed man," Welch said in a statement. "The circumstances of this homicide will be examined in a court of law where Mr. Hernandez will have an opportunity to defend the charge."

Gates and other relatives described Hernandez as a devoted father who spent weekends coaching his young son's soccer team. After the shooting, he was fired and given an eviction notice from his employer-provided apartment. It was galling to Gates, given that Hernandez was reportedly acting under the orders of a supervisor she said remains employed at the property.

Gina Gates, right, a relative of Luis Ricardo Hernandez, the apartment complex maintenance worker who allegedly shot to death a man he suspected of
Gina Gates, right, a relative of Luis Ricardo Hernandez, the apartment complex maintenance worker who allegedly shot to death a man he suspected of committing a series of burglaries at the apartment complex, speaks to the media in front of the Santa Clara County Hall of Justice prior to Hernandez's court appearance on Jan. 18, 2012 in San Jose. Standing next to Gates is Paulina Martinez, center, Hernandez's relative. (Dai Sugano/Staff) ( Dai Sugano )

"Here's a person trying to provide for his family, instructed by his employer to do this citizen's arrest," Gates said. "I can't make an excuse for Ricardo having a weapon. He's going to have to explain himself. But can you see the pressure of that?"

The property owners, ROEM Corporation, deferred comment to its contracted property management firm FPI Management, which did not respond to calls from this newspaper.

According to authorities, Hernandez's maintenance supervisor at the apartments on Lewis Road noticed a truck and remembered it being around the time of previous burglaries. The supervisor told investigators that based on what he felt was inadequate police response to prior calls, he didn't believe officers would come. He enlisted Hernandez's help to detain the driver, since identified as Soriano, until they could get police to show up.

The two men told Soriano that they were going to hold him for police. Soriano started to leave, but Hernandez and the supervisor tried to pin him to the ground. Soriano broke free, and Hernandez shot Soriano once with what police said was an illegally purchased handgun.

Gates pointed to a groundswell of support for Hernandez and saw it as a message to prosecutors about the public's will and residents' desire for solutions to rising crime rates in the face of dwindling police resources.

"We'd like to see leniency, some education and something done for the community," she said.

Contact Robert Salonga at 408-920-5002. Follow him at Twitter.com/robertsalonga.