Suspect arraigned in murder of church worker driving through gang war (Updated)

Catherine Kennedy at her 2014 wedding.

Documented gang member Dionicio Crespin Torrez Jr., 24, pleaded not guilty to murder, Friday, March 17 at the Vista Courthouse in connection with the murder of an Escondido woman who drove through a violent gang turf confrontation on the way home from Bible study.

Torrez could face the death penalty. Superior Court Judge Cynthia Freehand denied bail citing “the allegations and my concern for public safety.”

“On Wednesday, March 15, the Escondido Police Department made two arrests in this gang-related crime, a 24-year-old male adult believed to be the shooter, and a 16-year-old male juvenile,” Murphy said in a news release.

The 16-year-old boy was not identified. “He will be arraigned on Monday, March 20, at 8:30 a.m. at the Juvenile Courthouse.” Murphy said. “For clarification purposes, it is believed there was only one shooter in this incident, and that it was not a cross-fire situation.” Police later said the gang member was shooting at a rival who was in its turf, tagging across the street.

The arrest came following a police dragnet aimed at capturing those responsible for the killing of Catherine Kennedy, a 55-year-old church worker and dental hygienist, who was driving home from Penance service at the Church of St. Timothy just after 9 p.m. Tuesday.

A St. Timothy Parish youth leader, Kennedy was driving through a near-downtown section of town featuring single-level medical offices and apartments in the 1800 block of E. Grand Avenue when a stray bullet struck her in the head.

Kennedy drove another block in her silver Toyota Camry before driving off the road and into a parked truck. Paramedics transported her to Palomar Medical Center where she later died.

Besides murder, the District Attorney’s office alleged the shooting was done to advance gang interests — a special circumstance that makes Torrez’s potential punishment either life in prison without parole or death. The decision whether to pursue the death penalty will be made at a later time.

Torrez also faces other charges, including two counts of attempted murder for shooting at the two rival gang members, a shooting police said was done in retaliation for gang-related tagging at the Pepperwood Meadows apartment complex, along East Grand Avenue between Rose Street and Midway Drive.

The only other criminal case on file for Torrez was a 2011 misdemeanor vandalism case. He pleaded guilty but court records indicate he failed to pay all his fines on time, and also repeatedly failed to sign up for court-ordered anger management classes.

Kennedy’s death and the circumstances surrounding her random killing galvanized police and the community. A memorial vigil attracted hundreds this week. Police also vowed a gang dragnet to find the killer or killers, putting gang members on notice they would be detained for any legal reason, citing jaywalking as an example, until the case was resolved.

That search ended Wednesday although police continued to investigate the murder, asking anyone with information to please contact the Escondido Police Department, Crime Stoppers or leave an anonymous tip at 760-743-TIPS (8477).

Kennedy’s private funeral was scheduled for today Friday, March 17 with a viewing from 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. at the Church of St. Timothy, 2960 Canyon Rd., Escondido 92025, followed by mass at 10 a.m., church officials said.

Escondido police chief Craig Carter took a highly personal interest in the case, coordinating the investigation that continued around-the-clock to catch suspects in the shocking killing. He met with the Kennedy family Thursday to express his sympathy and regrets.

“We would like to commend the Escondido Police Department on these arrests and ask that you respect our privacy as we continue through the grieving process in light of this new information,” said Kevin Kennedy, Catherine’s husband of three years who led religious education at St. Timothy’s.

Carter also held a Thursday afternoon news conference where he hammered Escondido gangs, saying the city of about 150,000 residents had about 400 gang members, divided into rival east and west city groups. The two groups were in a continuing gang war, police sources said.

“This is not what (Catherine Kennedy) signed up for,” Carter said at the news conference during which he announced the arrests. “She’s the victim of this tragic crime.”

Gang shootings were down over the last three years, from nearly 50 to around 40 last year, Carter said as officers have confiscated more guns and made more arrests.

Carter also vowed to go after landlords who knowingly rent to gang members.

A few dozen people gathered at Kennedy’s church Wednesday night for a private prayer service, according to The San Diego Union Tribune.

A church spokeswoman said earlier in the day that Father Fernando Ramirez was too upset to comment on Kennedy’s death. “Cathy was one of the most wonderful people you ever want to meet,” she said.

“She was passionate about making a difference in her patients lives and everyone with whom she came in contact,” posted Brilliant Dental, where Kennedy worked for 22 years.

In addition to her husband, Kennedy is survived by a daughter, Alicia de la Rosa, 24.

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