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It's a tough crowd.

It’s such a tough crowd th

at no one believed the repeated messages that the killer left on the victim’s cell phone threatening to “bust a cap” into him. Until Hector Gil was shot in the back and died.

The 52-year-old boxing trainer was killed at a ring in Vista that a rival trainer had designed and helped to build. Mark Diaz, who was 49, was competing with Gil for control of promising young fighters. On February 4, 2010, Ricky Gutierrez fired Diaz and moved on to his new trainer, Hector Gil. The threatening messages began to arrive on Gil’s cell phone immediately.

The next day, Gil went to Ricky’s home. He told the 21-year-old fighter and his father Raul about the threatening phone calls. Raul and Ricky listened to the messages on speakerphone. All three men recognized Diaz’s voice.

“He said he was gonna ‘bust a cap in your ass,’” Ricky later testified in court. Raul remembered the messages as, “You leave Ricky and my boxers alone. I’m gonna kill you.” The father said aloud, “Jesus, it’s crazy” and “I don’t believe it.” He told his son’s new trainer, “Don’t worry.” After the men listened to at least two hostile, loud, angry messages, Ricky erased them.

But Gil was still concerned. For a while he avoided the boxing gym in Vista. At another gym about five miles away, the Compound in Oceanside, Gil told Sean Loeffler about the nasty recordings on his cell phone. “Man, this guy is threatening me.” He invited Loeffler to listen to the most recent message.

Loeffler sometimes sports a green Mohawk, and colorful tattoos cover his pale white skin, even his knuckles. He is 29 years old, stands 6 foot 3, and weighs 185 pounds. He likes to announce his profession this way: “Occupation? Fighter. Or mixed martial artist.” The sponsored professional cage fighter says he has been featured on television. His record is 22 wins, 10 of these knockouts, and 5 losses.

When Loeffler spoke with Gil in early 2010, he found him to be “uneasy.” Loeffler said he listened to the “pissed” messages on Gil’s phone. But at the time, he didn’t think much of it. “In the sport I’m in, people just talk a lot of trash,” he explained. Loeffler thought that Gil was worried about getting his “butt kicked, not murdered.”

Convicted murderer Mark Diaz, on left, next to Ari Soltani, owner of the Vista boxing gym.

Ari Soltani first met Mark Diaz in 2004 or 2005, possibly at the Boys Club in Vista, where Diaz worked. Soltani had been searching for suitable property in Vista to create a gym for local kids. He wanted to offer them an alternative to gangs. “I got in trouble when I was a kid,” explained Soltani. He said he had done time in prison, but he got out early for good behavior and changed his life. Soltani found a ramshackle building on a scruffy lot at 1304 North Santa Fe, and he pulled together the paperwork to create a nonprofit corporation called Pacific Boxing.

Diaz drew up the plans for the ring, and Soltani, who owned a body shop, had his workers cut the metal and build the ring. Diaz worked on the drywall and contacted sponsors who donated exercise equipment and heavy boxing bags. Soltani welcomed Diaz’s help. He acknowledged that Diaz “helped us put it together,” but he insisted that Diaz “didn’t contribute a dime.”

For the grand opening, Diaz and his girlfriend Susan threw a party. They barbecued hot dogs and hamburgers and handed out T-shirts that said “Club Diaz.” On the side of the gym, they hung big banners that read “Club Diaz Training Center.” That was in May 2009.

Later, Soltani complained of Diaz, “He has been charging patrons to use the facility without my permission and keeping the money they pay in fees.” The monthly fee was usually $30 or $40, according to one patron, Salvador Gonzalez. He said he paid Diaz a monthly fee for his 11-year-old son to train at the gym. “I would pay him directly,” said Gonzalez. “It was cash. He would make out a receipt to me.” Gonzalez believed that Diaz owned the gym. He remembered seeing a banner at the gym that read “Club Diaz,” although the name was later changed, he said, and a new banner went up that read “Pacific Coast Boxing.”

At some point, Soltani noticed that volunteers who helped set up the gym were no longer coming. “They were all leaving.” He eventually realized that “Basically, nobody wanted to work with Mark.” It was said that Diaz was becoming more aggressive and developing a my-way-or-the-highway style. Soltani said he knew he had to talk with Diaz, but, he said, “I was so intimidated by Mark” that “I had to build the courage to confront him about this.”

Ricky Gutierrez, the 21-year-old fighter, said Diaz was his coach in 2005, when Ricky was 15 years old. They parted ways for a time, then renewed their relationship in the summer of 2009. Gutierrez said they got back together after Diaz phoned him. Gutierrez signed a contract with Diaz in January 2010. The contract described Diaz as manager, promoter, and trainer. It was supposed to be a six-year contract, but it lasted hardly a month — Gutierrez busted the deal on February 4.

Sometime after Gutierrez signed the contract, he went to Soltani, the owner of the gym. Diaz had told Gutierrez not to tell his parents or Soltani about the contract, the young fighter said. This spurred Soltani to have a talk with the trainer. Soltani said he tried to do this on February 8, and “He got in my face and in a threatening tone said, ‘Don’t make me deal with your ass.’”

On February 10, Soltani got a temporary restraining order against Diaz, requiring him to stay 100 yards away from Soltani and to stay away from the gym. In the paperwork, Soltani stated, “A few months ago, without my permission, he changed the locks on the premises, which I own, and removed my signs, replacing them with banners reading ‘Club Diaz.’”

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