Back in the early 1990s, gang warfare had turned many neighborhoods in Garden Grove — as well as other O.C. cities — into a modern-day version of the Wild, Wild West.
And so it was on Aug. 12, 1993, when two members of the Lil’ Hood street gang showed up, for a second day in a row, in a neighborhood that no longer exists at Yucca Avenue and Sage Street (it’s now a parking lot).
According to Garden Grove PD Det. Michael Farley, the two gang members, Ricky Lopez, 17, and Rudy Espinoza, 18, both of Garden Grove, were attempting to claim the territory as belonging to their gang. They had been in the neighborhood the day before threatening people.
Aug. 12, 1993, turned violent. An all-out gun-battle erupted between the two and some residents.
Lopez shot into the crowd and gunfire was returned, killing him.
Espinoza fired his weapon into a crowd but didn’t hit anyone. However, he was arrested and eventually convicted of assault with a deadly weapon and served time for the crime.
The shooter who killed Lopez, however, remained at large.
The case gathered dust.
“We were getting slammed with lots of gang shootings at the time,” Farley said. “This one fell by the wayside.”
Last year, Bob Romaine, a tenacious former law enforcement investigator for several agencies who now looks into cold cases on a part-time basis at the Garden Grove PD, was poring over a case that had a connection to the Lopez shooting, and he told Farley, “Hey, I don’t think we ever took a look at this.”
He was referring to the Lopez killing.
“This wasn’t even in our cold case files,” Farley said in a recent interview.
As it often turns out with cold cases, fresh eyes looking over an old incident would reap dividends.
GGPD detectives got to work tracking down former residents of the neighborhood where Lopez was killed.
Their stories turned out to be consistent: that a resident known as “Samoan Mike” was the shooter who killed Lopez, but that he was shooting to defend himself and the neighborhood.
Digging deeper, Farley and (now-retired) Det. Mike Reynolds looked through several local databases and hand-searched old police reports. Finally, they were able to ID “Samoan Mike” as former resident Michael Maliga, now 50 and living in 29 Palms.
GGPD detectives contacted him. Maliga, who never was a gang member, told the detectives he wanted to speak to a lawyer because he was scared.
“We performed our due diligence and located several witnesses from a neighborhood that hadn’t existed in over 10 years who all stated that Samoan Mike shot in self-defense after the gang members fired on him,” Farley said.
Orange County Deputy District Attorney Mike Murray (now a judge) agreed with the GGPD detectives that Samoan Mike had acted in self-defense and in defense of others. Murray concluded that any case against Maliga regarding the shooting of Lopez would not be prosecutable.
“He had a legitimate defense for fatally shooting (Lopez),” Farley said. “You don’t really get too many cases like, when the shooter gets exonerated.”