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15-year-old charged as adult in New Year's Eve killing

  • Santa Rosa police investigate a fatal shooting that occurred in the early morning at Redwood Park Apartments in Santa Rosa on Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2013. (Conner Jay / The Press Democrat)

A 15-year-old from Santa Rosa was charged as an adult Friday in a New Year's Eve slaying outside a Piner Road apartment complex.

Joseph Mario Varela was charged with a single count of murder and gun enhancements in the early morning shooting of Damien Wadell Toney Jr., 20, at the Redwood Park Apartments.

In a rare occurrence on the North Coast, Varela, who faces a maximum 25-years-to-life sentence, was charged as an adult because he is 14 or older, prosecutor Bud McMahon said.

The thinly built teenager appeared to be holding back tears as he was led into a Santa Rosa courtroom with his hands shackled to his waist.

Judge Dana Simonds appointed the Public Defender's Office to represent Varela and ordered him back to court Jan. 17 for possible plea.

He is being held at Juvenile Hall without bail.

Outside court, a woman identified as his mother declined to talk to reporters.

“I really don't think this is something that has to be written about,” she said.

Public Defender Kathleen Pozzi said Varela had no prior criminal record. She declined further comment, saying she had just received police reports.

However, she didn't rule out the possibility that Varela may have acted in defense of himself or others. She said it was rare for someone Varela's age to be charged as an adult.

Though it is unusual for a suspect younger than 16 to be tried in adult court, it is not unprecedented on the North Coast. In 2003, Sophoul Paul Hin and Pongsony Khaoone, both 15, faced charges in connection with the shooting death of Jonathan Townsend, 18, of Windsor.

Both ultimately pleaded no contest or guilty to lesser charges, while the adult who shot Townsend, Ricky Phachanh, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter.

In 2008, Marcos Escareno, 15, faced murder charges in the killing of 21-year-old Enoc Cruz, his sister's estranged boyfriend, in Manchester. A jury deadlocked on whether Escareno, who was 14 at the time of Cruz's killing, was fit to stand trial. He later pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and using a gun to kill Cruz and was sentenced to 10 years in a state juvenile correctional facility.

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