They had shaved heads and wore dark blue and admired a notorious Mexican street gang.
But a group of Colorado Springs men calling themselves the South Side Soldados offered little warning they were capable of cold-blooded murder, according to testimony Thursday at the ongoing trial of a man accused in the 2017 execution-style killings of two local teens.
“They were a bunch of little dudes who just popped out of nowhere claiming ‘Triple S,’” said witness Aily Wright.
Three years later, their name alone “makes me sick to my stomach,” she told a jury.
Wright, 19, took the stand at the trial of Marco “Diablo” Garcia-Bravo, 23, in Colorado Springs and recounted the factions and feuds that prosecutors say led to the March 2017 abductions and killings of her friends, 15-year-old Derek Greer and 16-year-old Natalie Cano-Partida.
Authorities say that Greer and Cano-Partida, both students at Coronado High School, were taken at gunpoint from a party in Colorado Springs, driven to a remote area near Fountain and made to kneel on the side of Old Pueblo Road while a pair of gunman took turns shooting them at point-blank range. The murders were allegedly driven by the gang’s suspicions that Cano-Partida had conspired with street rivals who had shot at two apartment buildings associated with the loose-knit Soldados.
Charged with 21 counts — including first-degree murder, aggravated robbery and kidnapping — Garcia-Bravo is accused of serving as one of the triggermen, and he is the last of 10 people to be prosecuted in the case that shocked the region.
A man who admitted to being the other assassin, Diego “Casper” Chacon, was sentenced in January 2019 to 65 years in prison after pleading guilty to two counts of second-degree murder. He refused to name his accomplice, even as he apologized to the victims’ parents.
Of the 10 defendants, five were charged with first-degree murder on allegations they played roles in the killings of Greer and Cano-Partida. The others pleaded guilty and were sentenced in an ensuing coverup or an earlier, unsuccessful abduction plot.
Although members of the Soldados claimed affiliation with the Surenos — a network of gangs linked to the Mexican Mafia in U.S. prisons — there has been no public evidence of links between them.
Garcia-Bravo’s trial comes six months after prosecutors announced they were dropping plans to seek the death penalty against him, abandoning legal groundwork that slowed his prosecution to a trickle. If convicted, Garcia-Bravo faces the potential of multiple life sentences in prison.
The trial began Sept. 15 with two weeks of jury selection. During opening statements last week, Garcia-Bravo’s defense team called him innocent of all charges, saying he was falsely linked to the crimes by co-defendant Gustavo Antonio Marquez, who they say was jealous over suspicions Garcia-Bravo had an affair with his girlfriend.
Marquez admitted to being the third person present during the teens' shootings. During a 2017 confession that authorities say unraveled the deadly plot, he alleged that Chacon fired two shots at Cano-Partida before passing a pistol to Garcia-Bravo.
"Mr. Marquez said Mr. Garcia-Bravo fired multiple shots to include shooting after he fell to the ground," an investigator wrote in an arrest affidavit.
Marquez was initially charged with first-degree murder in the pair’s deaths, but pleaded guilty in April 2018 to second-degree murder. His plea deal requires him to be a witness against his co-defendants. In exchange, he faces a sentence of 32-38 years in prison once the case against Garcia-Bravo has concluded.
Another person involved, Alexandra Romero, told authorities that Chacon privately implicated Garcia-Bravo at a party after the killings, telling her, "They are gone! Diablo did one, and I did the other." Chacon had a pistol in his waistband at the time, she said.
Trial testimony comes as students at Coronado High returned to in-person learning this week, their school year upended by the coronavirus pandemic.
During her testimony, Wright — 15 at the time of the killings — identified players in the gang dispute and detailed various conflicts between Cano-Partida and members of the Soldados. They involved romantic entanglements, suspicions that Cano-Partida had stolen the purse of a gang member’s girlfriend and a confrontation outside an eastside McDonald’s weeks before the killings in which Cano-Partida brandished a bat at some of the people later accused in her abduction.
Investigators say that Greer was killed solely because he was with Cano-Partida on the night they were taken at gunpoint.
Wearing a mask and gloves on the witness stand as part of the court’s coronavirus safety procedures, Wright echoed investigators’ account that Greer’s only involvement was his friendship with Cano-Partida.
“I tried to keep Derek very separate from that lifestyle,” Wright said. “I always looked at him as the baby, even though he was only three months younger.
“He was a good kid. He went to school and all that.”