Melissa Chacon used to be known as the "queen" of her boyfriend's gang - a tough-talking, gun-savvy mother who could hang with the roughest homeboys.
Now the 22-year-old woman gets a chance to live down her reputation, thanks to the faith of a judge.Third District Judge Sandra N. Peuler refused to send Chacon to prison for her role in a murder plot two years ago. Instead, Chacon will serve 36 months' probation with strict conditions.
The judge said Monday she believed Chacon had changed over the past year, which she spent in jail waiting to testify against her boyfriend and three other gang members for the February 1995 shotgun slaying of Joey Miera, 19.
Chacon was originally charged with murder, a first-degree felony, in the young man's death. She was accused of relaying messages from imprisoned gang leader Tyrese S. Smith to his fellow gang members that led to the death of Miera.
In exchange for her testimony against Smith and the others, Chacon was allowed to plead guilty to the reduced charge of conspiracy to commit murder, a second-degree felony. She could have faced one to 15 years in prison had it not been for the mercy of Peuler.
"There is something different about you. I believe you can start to make a positive impact on the community and re-pay your crime in some way," the judge said.
Peuler followed the sentencing recommendations of prosecutor Rod Ybarra, Salt Lake Police detective Jill Candland and Adult Probation & Parole, but in so doing disappointed Miera's family.
"What (Chacon) did was terrible and basically she is going to walk away from it. She could have stopped what happened anytime, but she didn't," Miera's father, Jerry Ortega, said before the sentencing.
According to court testimony, Smith ordered his "homeboys," through Chacon, to kill a man he believed shot another of his friends.
At the time, Smith was serving a sentence at the Utah State Prison for an unrelated aggravated assault. Prison telephone recordings between him and Chacon captured the plot.
But instead of killing the man Smith believed had shot his friend, the three gang members killed Miera, who was not a gang member and not related to the earlier shooting.
He was sleeping on the floor of a West Salt Lake home thought by Smith to be frequented by his target when one of Smith's associates stuck a shotgun through an open window and fired twice.
Two hours after the 6 a.m. shooting on Feb. 22, Smith again called Chacon from the prison. She asked him if he had seen the news.
"You didn't see nothing? You didn't see the news? He's gone," Chacon said, according to tapes heard by a jury in Smith's murder trial in February. "I'm telling you, `Mafioso style;' they gloved up. It looked `Mafioso,' for real," Chacon is heard saying.
Smith, 23, was convicted and sentenced to serve 10 years to life - consecutive to any time he has left on his current sentence. The other gang members, Miguel Flores, 20; Collin Carter, 19; and Cameron Lopes, 20; have all pleaded guilty to murder and are serving terms of five years to life.
Chacon's attorney, Loni Deland, said his client realizes she got a big break and is truly a different woman than she was two years ago.
"I believe she has really had an awakening. She's had a chance to sit back and look at what involvement in a gang got her and she was shocked," he said.
Chacon earned her high school diploma while in jail and now works full-time at a minimum-wage job, Deland said. She hopes to get training in a unionized trade, such as electrical work.
Chacon said little during her sentencing, but apologized to Miera's family.
"I know my apology won't cut it. Nothing I do or say will change what happened. That's something I'm going to have to live with for the rest of my life."