Two Stafford County men with ties to the MS–13 gang face possible life sentences after being convicted Tuesday of killing another man during a botched robbery.

Juan Pablo Rubio, 21, and Ronald A. Silvestre Torres, 24, were both convicted in Stafford Circuit Court of second-degree murder, robbery, conspiracy to rob, gang participation and using a firearm in the commission of a felony.

The charges stem from the Jan. 22 slaying of 26-year-old Jorge Leonardo Melo, who was shot twice on Madison Court in North Stafford during what was supposed to be a marijuana sale.

Rubio and Silvestre Torres entered Alford pleas to the charges, which is not an admission of guilt but a concession that the prosecution has enough evidence for a conviction. They will each face a maximum penalty of life plus 63 years in prison when they are sentenced March 15.

According to the evidence presented by prosecutors Lori DiGiosia and Ed Lustig on Tuesday and at a preliminary hearing in June, Melo got a phone call from the defendants that evening during which they expressed an interest in buying an ounce of marijuana from him.

Melo and a couple of friends went to Madison Court to make the deal. One friend, David Hall, got out of the vehicle with Melo while the driver stayed behind the wheel.

They soon encountered Rubio and Silvestre Torres, who neither Hall nor Melo knew. Hall testified previously that the ensuing conversation appeared to be friendly, but Hall didn’t understand what was being said because it was in Spanish.

Suddenly, one of the defendants tried to grab the marijuana out of Melo’s hand. Melo resisted the robbery attempt and wrapped his arms around the suspect.

DiGiosia said both defendants were displaying weapons by that time and Rubio shot Melo twice with a revolver, once through the right arm and chest and once in his hip. Silvestre Torres had his gun pointed at Hall, who was running from the scene.

Hall testified that he ran because “there would have been two bodies instead of one if I didn’t.”

After seeing the suspect running in another direction, Hall returned to Melo and performed CPR, which was unsuccessful.

Police soon developed Rubio and Silvestre Torres as suspects and arrested them a couple weeks after the slaying. Among the witnesses identified by police was Brian Zendajas, who described himself as a friend of the suspects, but not a fellow MS-13 gang member.

Zendajas reluctantly testified at the preliminary hearing that he heard Rubio and Silvestre Torres planning the robbery and said they asked him to go along with them. He heard two shots a short time later and saw the suspects return to the residence and hide their guns. He said one of them said, “We shot someone.”

DiGiosia said that when Silvestre Torres was arrested, an MS–13 book with his name in it was found in the vehicle. She said Rubio wrote several letters from jail in which he referred to his MS–13 affiliation and carved MS–13 graffiti in his cell.

Melo was the oldest of six siblings and was very close to them and his mother. The family remains “devastated” by his slaying, DiGiosia said.

Seven members of the Stafford Sheriff’s Office were honored by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for their work on the joint homicide investigation that led to the arrests. The ICE Director’s Interagency Award was presented Nov. 9 to Detectives Barry Surles, Todd Nosal, Benjamin Woodson, Doug Aloisio and Chadwick Oxley, crime analyst Krystle Galyen and Deputy Kassandra Lawrence.

In a Sheriff’s Office release, Surles said ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations laid the groundwork for the investigation and U.S. Marshals provided electronic surveillance assistance with phone records and GPS mapping, which helped the Sheriff’s Office develop suspects and witnesses.

In addition to arresting Rubio and Torres Feb. 3, the Sheriff’s Office also identified and administratively arrested 11 undocumented immigrants with ties to the suspects, most of whom were members, associates or affiliates of MS–13, the news release said.

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Keith Epps: 540/374-5404 kepps@freelancestar.com

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