A convicted felon who gunned down a 21-year-old Beaumont woman during a botched kidnapping was convicted Thursday of murder and other offenses.
A Banning jury deliberated less than a day before finding 34-year-old Samuel Jesus Acosta guilty of the 2017 slaying of Jasmine Zuniga.
Along with first-degree murder, jurors convicted Acosta of assault with a firearm, assault with a deadly weapon, kidnapping and sentence-enhancing gun and great bodily injury allegations. However, the panel acquitted him of attempted kidnapping and did not find true a special circumstance allegation of killing in the course of a kidnapping.
Riverside County Superior Court Judge Timothy Hollenhorst scheduled a sentencing hearing for Jan. 31 at the Banning Justice Center.
The prosecution and defense completed their closing statements Wednesday, and Hollenhorst sent jurors behind closed doors Thursday morning to weigh evidence from the roughly two-week trial.
Acosta’s four co-defendants — 36-year-old Francisca Perla Acosta, 27- year-old Erika Cristell Garcia, 28-year-old Ernest Ralph Granados and 26-year- old Matthew Zeus Munoz — all pleaded guilty to felony charges in September.
Francisca Acosta, Sam Acosta’s sister, admitted an accessory charge and received three years probation. Garcia, his girlfriend, admitted a kidnapping charge and was sentenced to four years in state prison. Granados admitted an allegation of attempted kidnapping while armed and was sentenced to seven years behind bars. Munoz admitted kidnapping and accessory charges and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
According to a supplemental brief filed by Deputy District Attorney Dan DeLimon, Sam Acosta led a quasi-gang known as “Southside Beaumont,” with which several of his co-defendants were associated.
In March 2017, they allegedly decided to try kidnapping as a means to further Southside Beaumont’s interests in some unspecified way, according to the prosecution.
The first target was an acquaintance of Acosta, Michael Polonis, whom the defendant and Munoz picked up in the San Gorgonio Pass on the evening of March 3 and drove back to Acosta’s residence on Michigan Avenue, according to the brief.
Polonis later told Beaumont police detectives that Munoz held him at gunpoint and threatened his life while Acosta drove.
According to the brief, several other co-defendants were present when the vehicle pulled up to the front of Acosta’s house, at which point Polonis jumped out of the car and began fighting with the defendants.
“Polonis fought because he believed that Acosta and his crime partners would kill him if they succeeded in dragging him into the residence,” the brief states. “After fighting for some time, Michael was able to break free and escape.”
After Polonis got away, Acosta plotted to abduct another acquaintance – – Zuniga — the following night. According to the prosecution, the woman was invited to Acosta’s property, and when she pulled into the driveway, the defendant and his cohorts surrounded her pickup.
DeLimon said Acosta was armed with a high-caliber semiautomatic rifle and leveled it at Zuniga before she even had an opportunity to step out of her truck.
“Acosta raised the rifle directly as Jasmine,” according to the brief. “Seconds later, Acosta discharged the gun directly at her.”
It was unclear whether Zuniga had tried to throw the pickup into reverse. She was struck in the stomach, mortally wounded, according to the prosecution.
One of the conspirators pushed the victim into the passenger seat and drove her pickup a short distance away from the residence, where it was abandoned.
According to investigators, patrol officers went to the area immediately after the shooting, which neighbors reported as reckless gunfire.
Zuniga was found dead in her pickup, and detectives soon developed leads pointing to Acosta and the others as the assailants. They were all arrested during a series of raids conducted by Beaumont police, Riverside and San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies three weeks later.
Acosta, who is being held without bail at the Smith Correctional Facility in Banning, has a prior conviction for battery resulting in great bodily injury.