A Beloit man who participated in the shooting death of a 5-year-old boy in Beloit three years ago got nearly the maximum sentence in Rock County Court on Friday.
Judge Michael Haakenson said he wanted to send a message to those who would commit gun violence or take the law into their own hands.
“We have a problem with gun violence in our community,” Haakenson said.
Haakenson sentenced Eric Salazar-Mota, 24, to 14 years in prison followed by 10 years of supervision. The maximum was 15 years plus 10.
Salazar-Mota is one of four men charged in the drive-by shooting. He and two others, Isaac Torres and Hugo Martinez, had pleaded guilty to party to second-degree reckless homicide.
The man who pulled the trigger, Sergio R. Ortiz, 26, pleaded guilty to first-degree reckless homicide and was sentenced Nov. 9 the maximum 40 years in prison plus 20 years of extended supervision.
Friday's sentencing included tearful statements from the mother and a grandmother of Austin Ramos Jr., who was killed while riding in a vehicle driven by his father on Jan. 22, 2016.
Both women called for a maximum sentence.
Ramos’ mother, Jasmin Martinez, said the sound of the school bus each morning reminds her that her son will never take it. And his toys remain upstairs where they were when he died.
“I don’t just blame Ortiz. I blame all of them because they didn’t stand up,” Martinez said.
Salazar-Mota’s brother, Victor Salazar, apologized on behalf of his family. He said both families were hurt by the killing and that his brother brought “great shame” on his family and community.
Victor pleaded for a less-than-maximum sentence, saying his brother is young and has the potential for a productive future, and his family would support him.
The victim’s father was the target of gang members who were seeking revenge for a killing by a rival gang, authorities have said.
The father had been a member of the rival gang but no longer belonged at the time of the shooting, police have said.
Assistant District Attorney Mason Braunschweig said Salazar-Mota shares blame because he failed to say or do anything to stop the killing and because he encouraged it.
An informant—apparently one of the two in the drive-by vehicle who were not charged—quoted Salazar-Mota as saying as they got in the SUV, “Oh, we should catch a body today.”
Defense attorney Ed Borda suggested his client was not the one to say those words, saying witnesses gave different versions and detectives never corroborated the accusation that Salazar-Mota was the one who said the words.
Haakenson said he believed it “likely” that Salazar-Mota said those words and that he contributed to the atmosphere in the SUV that led to the shooting.
Ortiz’s older brother had been shot and killed by what he and others believed was a member of the Latin Kings, part of a wave of gun homicides in Beloit that started in 2014.
Ortiz and the other defendants were members of the La Raza gang, authorities have said, and they were looking for revenge the night Austin Jr. died.
Ortiz’s brother's homicide has not been solved, Borda said.
Braunschweig described the .357-caliber bullet Ortiz shot going through the car door, into the boy’s rib cage and out the other side.
Austin Jr. was taken to the hospital and lived for three more hours, “scared, suffering and about to die,” Braunschweig said.
Much of the discussion during the hearing concerned Salazar-Mota’s gang affiliation. He flashed gang signs, got into fights and was accused of drawing gang graffiti in his cell during his nearly three years in the Rock County Jail.
Haakenson said one reason he did not impose the maximum sentence was that Salazar-Mota had showed no signs of gang affiliation during the past year.
Haakenson said he also believed Salazar-Mota was at least somewhat remorseful.
Salazar-Mota apologized, said he would accept his prison sentence and wanted to prove "what a good man I truly am."
Salazar-Mota got sentence credit for his jail time, but Haakenson said he was not eligible for treatment programs that could have helped him shorten his sentence.
Haakenson did grant 1,134 days of sentence credit for the jail time.
Haakenson said Salazar-Mota was likely to associate with gang members in prison, but he warned him that he could face more prison time if he maintained those ties when he gets out.
The other two men involved in the shooting, Torres and Martinez, are scheduled to be sentenced in April.