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TRIAL BEGINS WITH TEARS MOM TELLS HOW SUSPECT, SON WERE FRIENDS.

Byline: Amy Raisin Staff Writer

The mother of a man allegedly slain by suspected gang members in Canyon Country 18 months ago testified Wednesday about the friendship between her son and the man prosecutors say lured him to his death.

The trial of five of the 18 suspects charged with murder in the stabbing death of 19-year-old Byron Benito began in downtown Superior Court Wednesday morning, where the victim's mother sobbed as she described the friendship between her son and the man who picked him up from the family's home on the night of his death.

``They would eat from the same plate, drink from the same glass, smoke from the same cigarette. They would do everything together,'' said Manda Orozco, aided by a Spanish interpreter.

According to prosecutors, Samuel Herr lured the victim to an area behind a mobile home park on the night of Jan. 15, 2002, where a group of suspected gang members waited to attack Benito in retaliation for the slaying of a fellow gang member killed less than 24 hours earlier.

Because of the large number of defendants, prosecutors opted to break the case up into two trials. Seven defendants, including Herr, will face a jury in the second trial, scheduled to begin in late September.

Four of the 18 defendants have already pleaded guilty, while the cases of two suspects are pending in Juvenile Court. All of the adult defendants face charges of murder with special circumstances and conspiracy to commit murder.

The death penalty will not be sought, according to the District Attorney's Office.

Prosecutors called six witnesses Wednesday, including the victim's 13-year-old brother and a woman who testified that she gave a ride to two of the defendants, Alfredo Hernandez, 23, and 22-year-old Katherine Hensen, hours after Benito was killed.

Witness Jacqueline Cuentas testified that on Jan. 15, 2002 all of the defendants were at the apartment she shared with two roommates. This was just hours after the body of suspected gang member Victor Flores was found in a drainage canal under Sierra Highway, but hours before Benito's death.

``Everyone was talking about it,'' Cuentas said of the Flores slaying. Some of the 18 defendants ``were talking about getting revenge. They went in my bedroom and shut the door. They were in there for a while.''

Cuentas, who said she felt uncomfortable testifying because the defendants used to be her friends, told the jury that when she gave Hernandez and Hensen a ride early on the morning of Jan. 16, Hernandez directed her to a spot not far from her apartment.

``He got out (of the car) and got a trash bag,'' Cuentas said. ``He put it in my trunk. Then I drove them back to Katherine's house.''

Granted immunity from prosecutors in exchange for her testimony, Cuentas said she never asked what was in the trash bag.

Deputy District Attorney James Garrison said he expects the trial to last about two weeks.

Amy Raisin, (661) 257-5254

amy.raisin(at)dailynews.com
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jul 24, 2003
Words:500
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