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Four drive-by shooting suspects arraigned

WILLMAR -- Three men and one woman were arraigned Monday in connection with two drive-by shootings in Willmar early Friday morning that injured one woman.

The individuals were each charged with five felony charges including attempted murder in the second degree while committing, or attempting to commit, a drive-by shooting; first degree assault -liability for crimes of another; and three counts of using dangerous weapons during a drive by shooting.

They are being held in the Kandiyohi County jail.

Citing the serious nature of the charges, the risk to public safety, the risk of flight by the individuals and past criminal records, Judge Donald Spilseth set bail high -- ranging from $150,000 to $300,000.

The four, Jose Armando Padilla, 25, of Granite Falls; Jose Antonio Mercado, 21, Samuel Espinoza Hernandez, 20, and Veronica Yanez Saldana, 25, all of Willmar, are accused of participating in two drive-by shootings around 12:45 a.m. Friday in Willmar.

A 36-year old woman was shot in the hand and left breast while she was in the kitchen of a home at 1410 Gorton Avenue. Her injuries were not life-threatening.

The incident could have been much worse.

Bullets passed within a foot or two of a five-month old baby sitting in a car seat in the middle of the living room of a home, according to a police report.

Other children and adults were also in the home and in the process of running for cover and diving for the floor as a spray of bullets shot through the house.

The police report said a man in the home hurried his family, including two young children, into a room and laid on top of them to protect them from the shots.

The bullets, which were lodged in the couch, refrigerator and entertainment center, were fired from a blue mini van in the street.

The van, with Padilla allegedly shooting and Saldana allegedly at the wheel, fled the scene. The vehicle was stopped a short time later by Willmar Police and all four were arrested.

A sawed-off shot gun and a stolen Remington rifle that were used in the shootings were discovered in the van. Ammunition and spent shells were found scattered on the floor of the vehicle.

The same four individuals were allegedly involved with a drive-by shooting at a mobile home in Regency Estates West just minutes earlier. No one was home at that residence at the time.

According to court records, police had been called at 12:42 a.m. about the gunfire at Regency West and were on their way to investigate. About the same time, the owners of the mobile home were called by neighbors and told about the shootings.

The mobile home owners, who were at the Gorton Avenue location, then called police at 12:45 a.m. During that phone call, the Kandiyohi County Sheriff 's dispatcher heard gun shots in the background and was told that someone in the house had been hit.

During the arraignment Monday Padilla was identified as the alleged shooter at both locations.

Kandiyohi County Assistant Attorney Connie Crowell, said Padilla "unloaded his gun" into the trailer house, told Mercado to reload it and then fired shots into the Gorton Avenue home.

Crowell, who said it appeared that Padilla wouldn't "stop hurting people" unless he was incarcerated, requested $500,000 bail. Padilla has a number of previous charges from three area counties and Texas, as well as an outstanding warrant.

Judge Spilseth set the unconditional bail it at $300,000 and conditional bail at $250,000.

Padilla told Spilseth that bail wasn't necessary because "I didn't do anything." He said he wanted to hire his own attorney rather than accept a public defender but would need time to raise the necessary money.

Crowell said evidence suggests that Mercado joined Padilla in firing shots into the mobile home.

"I did not shoot at the house, your honor," Mercado told Spilseth, as the charges were being read during the proceedings.

Spilseth cautioned Mercado about saying anything in court without talking to an attorney. A short time later Mercado again tried explaining himself. "I did not shoot at the house on Gorton Avenue, but I did shoot at the mobile home." Spilseth once again quickly cut him off.

Bail for Mercado, who has a history of burglary and assault charges, was set at $200,000 for unconditional bail and $150,000 for conditional bail. Crowell had requested $300,000 unconditional bail

Saldana, who moved to Willmar two months ago from Texas, was allegedly the driver of the van during the shootings. The crimes would not have happened without her, said Crowell during the arraignment. The vehicle reportedly belonged to Saldana.

Saldana told Spilseth she has seven children at home to take care of and asked to be allowed to go home and come back for future court appearances.

"I didn't do this because I wanted to, I had no choice," Saldana said before Spilseth could stop her from saying something that could be incriminating.

Crowell had requested $500,000 bail. After Spilseth set unconditional bail at $200,000 and conditional bail at $150,000, Saldana asked if she could go home. She was instead escorted back to jail.

Hernandez may have served as a "lookout" while Padilla and Mercado retrieved guns from an unidentified dark, rural area before the shooting spree began, said Crowell during the arraignment. Hernandez, who has a past conviction of attempted murder in Michigan, said he moved to Willmar less than a month ago and has no family here. The police report stated that Hernandez claimed he was "along for the ride" the night of the shootings.

Crowell requested bail at $300,000. Spilseth set unconditional bail at $150,000 and conditional bail at $125,000.

As part of a long list of conditions for the bail, the individuals were restricted from having contact with the victims, or each other.

They are also prohibited from going near the crime scenes. Crowell said the victims and some of the witnesses have expressed fear of retaliation for talking to police.

The Friday shooting may have stemmed from two previous incidents in July, including a shooting incident at the same mobile home at Regency Estates West.

The four are scheduled to make their next court appearance Aug. 8.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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