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Judge orders man to face trial in 2001 drive-by murder

Published February 26, 2014 4:26 pm

Courts • Best friend's testimony seals case for prosecutors.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Last year, two men were charged with the 2001 murder of Leonel Perales, who was shot and killed in a gang-related Salt Lake City drive-by.

As a preliminary hearing got under way Wednesday for the alleged shooter, Vincent James Thomas, the alleged driver, Raymond Daniel Benally, was called first to testify.

Both men are charged in 3rd District Court with first-degree felony murder for the Sept. 28, 2001 death of 25-year-old Leonel Perales.

Benally, 32, testified Wednesday that Thomas, 33, was his "best friend" for more than 20 years.

When a prosecutor asked Benally why he was testifying against his best friend, Benally answered in tears: "I'm here because it's the right thing to do."

But his testimony could result in plea deal for Benally, whose preliminary hearing was held in November.

During Benally's preliminary hearing — which resulted in the judge ordering Benally to stand trial for murder — defense attorneys asserted that Thomas single-handedly committed the murder of 25-year-old Leonel Perales.

But prosecutors alleged that Benally was regularly the chauffeur for Thomas, his fellow gang-member. They pointed to conversations Benally allegedly had with other gangsters in which he bragged about his involvement in the murder and the logistics of one man doing the driving and the shooting.

"You have a driver going 90 mph or more, trying to get up on the side of [the other car]," said prosecutor Vincent Meister in November. "Being able to do that and shoot at someone accurately at the same time is highly unlikely."

Prosecutors charged the pair after getting witnesses to cooperate and identify Benally as driving his Chevy Celebrity near the time and place of the shooting, and to say that he and Thomas had boasted about the killing.

Prosecutors dismissed the defense's issue with car color as a product of poor lighting during the assault, which happened under the cover of darkness.

"It's no surprise the color is different," Meister said. "Car colors look different in different light. ... But the type stays the same — a Chevy Celebrity. And that matches the car that this defendant had access to."

According to testimony and charging documents, several witnesses saw a Chevy Celebrity following a Honda Accord near 300 E. and 700 South on Sept. 28, 2001. Four blocks later, a male in the Celebrity fired several times at the Accord. A Salt Lake City police officer saw the Accord and Celebrity speeding south through the intersection of 700 East and followed them.

The officer found the Accord stopped near 680 E. Coatsville Ave. (1790 South) with Perales inside, wounded from gunshots. The back window of the Accord was shattered and two bullets had gone through the rear passenger seats.

Perales was rushed to LDS Hospital but died from a gunshot wound to the chest.

Perales was a member of a rival gang, officers testified in November. It was not immediately clear whether the shooting was drug or gang-related.

The weapon in this case was linked to Thomas after police received information that Thomas had fired several rounds of his .32-caliber handgun at a BMW shortly before the homicide.

On Oct. 6, 2001, Thomas was at a party at 436 E. Van Ness Place (850 South) when he got into a fight and fired a gun at a guest, according to court documents. That day, police say they found a .32-caliber handgun at the house which the state crime lab eventually matched to the six shell casings that police found in the southbound lanes of 700 East during the drive-by investigation.

Thomas was convicted for the assault at the party. He was also convicted for attempted aggravated assault in 2009, as well as several other felony crimes dating back to 1998. He used to live in Salt Lake City, but is now serving time in a federal prison in Forrest City, Ark.

Benally was convicted in 2008 on three counts of firing a gun from a vehicle, near a highway or in the direction of any person, building or vehicle, and has prior convictions for assault and theft going back to 2000. He is currently residing at the Utah State Prison.

mlang@sltrib.com

Twitter: @Marissa_Jae