A man arrested in the slaying of a transient in Pacoima was released from prison last year after serving just eight years of a life sentence for a double murder because District Attorney George Gascon refused to transfer his case from juvenile to adult court, the Southern California News Group has learned.
Victor Bibiano, 30, was taken into custody last month for the April 16 killing of 42-year-old Mario Rodriguez, who was found shot at a transient encampment at Dronefield Avenue and Terra Bella Street in the foothill area of Pacoima.
Bibiano was 17 when he and two co-defendants were convicted in adult court in 2012 in the killing of two rival Pacoima gang members and the wounding of a third in 2009. Bibiano was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for a special-circumstance double murder, attempted murder, and shooting a firearm at an inhabited dwelling, as well as gun and gang enhancements, according to court records.
He was released from prison in 2021.
“We extend our deepest sympathies to the loved ones of Mario Rodriguez,” Gascón said in a statement Tuesday, adding that a preliminary investigation has revealed the homicide occurred during a robbery and drug deal.
“We have charged Victor Bibiano in connection with that crime, although evidence to date suggests he did not personally shoot or kill Mr. Rodriguez,” he added. “As it is an open case, we cannot discuss the facts in any greater detail.”
‘I know that people are angry’
Gascon also acknowledged the criticism of his policies, which detractors have characterized as soft on crime. But he said it’s important to stay the course to reform the criminal justice system.
“I know that people are angry, and I am angry, too,” he said. “But we cannot use single tragedies to make policy. One person’s failure cannot lead us to doubt the potential of everyone else. In other Los Angeles cases where juveniles previously sentenced to life have been released, including Mr. Bibiano’s original co-defendant, the results have been overwhelmingly positive.
“We will not play politics with this or any other tragedy. We are so sorry for those who lost a loved one, and we will make sure all those involved are held accountable.”
Under Proposition 57, which was approved by California voters in 2016, all minors convicted in adult court must receive a transfer hearing in juvenile court to determine if they should be tried again as an adult. The measure, which changed juvenile justice laws, was designed to enhance public safety and discourage recidivism by emphasizing rehabilitation.
In the fall of 2020, Bibiano’s conviction in adult court was vacated under Proposition 57 and his case was sent to juvenile court to await a transfer hearing. In December that year after Gascón assumed office, he immediately instituted a ban on trying anyone again in adult court if he or she was a minor when the crime was committed.
Top aide takes over
Alysa Blair, who was brought over from the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s Office to serve as Gascón’s special assistant, took over the Bibiano case from the assigned deputy district attorney.
In May 2021, Blair personally appeared in juvenile court and told a judge the District Attorney’s Office would not participate in a transfer hearing, said Kathy Cady, who represented one of the murder victims’ families.
Blair’s decision came despite a memo from the Writs and Appeals Division of the District Attorney’s Office that stated the law required the court to conduct a transfer hearing, Cady said.
Because the juvenile system does not house anyone beyond the age of 26 and Bibiano by then was in his late 20s, the judge had no option but to release him from custody.
“Gascón has become a master at blaming everyone but himself when the devastating effects of his pro-criminal policies hit the press,” said an outraged law enforcement official who asked not to be identified because they are not authorized to speak about the case. “But this time, it was his special assistant, Alisa Blair, that personally went into court on behalf of the Gascón administration and let this killer free to kill again. There is no running from his horrific policies and the danger he continues to put the public in.”
Gascon’s administration cannot claim ignorance because it was aware of Bibiano’s violent history and that he had been convicted of a double gang murder, according to the law enforcement official.
“They put no safety net in place to protect the public when they released this killer, who killed again a year later,” the official said.
Eric Siddall, vice president of the Association.of Deputy District Attorneys, which represents about 800 Los Angeles County prosecutors, said Gascón’s “bad policy mixed with bad decisions has deadly consequences.”
The first-term district attorney, currently facing a recall campaign, also has encountered backlash for his decision to offer a plea deal to the gunman who killed two El Monte police officers on June 14. Justin Flores essentially received probation rather than a 32-month prison sentence for being a felon in possession of a firearm. Gascon defended the decision, saying Flores’ rap sheet mostly was for nonviolent drug offenses.
DA says hands were tied
Gascón said his office could not seek a transfer to adult court unless it could prove Bibiano would not have benefited from juvenile rehabilitative services at the time he committed his offenses.
“Given that Bibiano had no prior delinquency record at the time of the homicides, he had no serious infractions while in prison, and he presented other confidential mitigating information, we determined we could not meet that burden,” the district attorney said. “Bibiano remained in juvenile court. We requested a Division of Juvenile Justice commitment for two additional years. That request was granted but Division of Juvenile Justice rejected Mr. Bibiano. However, as part of his release plan, Bibiano had access to support and community resources.”
Blair did not respond to a request for comment.
History of controversies
The Bibiano case isn’t the first of its kind to put a spotlight on Gascón’s handling of juvenile cases.
Earlier this year, the district attorney made international headlines when he refused to file a motion to transfer the child assault case of Hannah Tubbs, a 26-year-old transgender woman, from juvenile court to adult court.
Tubbs, who was just two weeks shy of her 18th birthday, was arrested after DNA evidence showed that she sexually assaulted a 10-year-old girl in the woman’s bathroom of a Denny’s restaurant in Palmdale on New Year’s Day in 2014.
Tubbs was sentenced to two years at a juvenile facility after Gascón’s office declined to move the case to adult court.
In a statement, Gascón reaffirmed that he believes juveniles should not be tried as adults, but said he has learned from the Tubbs case that adjustments sometimes are warranted.
Last month in an unrelated matter, the Kern County District Attorney’s Office charged Tubbs with murder for allegedly beating a fellow survivalist group member to death with a rock in 2019. She faces a possible life sentence if convicted.
In another case involving the District Attorney’s Office, a judge in November 2021 ordered convicted murderer Andrew Cachu released from prison after Blair refused to call witnesses during a juvenile court transfer hearing. Cachu was two months shy of his 18th birthday when he shot and killed 41-year-old Louis Amela outside a Palmdale restaurant in March 2015.
He was tried in adult court and ended up serving just six years of a 50-year prison sentence.
Blair also has assumed responsibility for at least 10 other cases of former minors convicted in adult court for gang murders, Cady said.
“Blair essentially took over all these cases and told juvenile judges that the District Attorney’s Office did not want to transfer these former minors without any evaluation as to whether the former minors posed a danger if they were released,” she said. “Blair’s actions in these cases and obvious disregard for victims and public safety is a clear violation of a prosecutor’s obligation to seek justice and follow the law.”