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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.

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.’”

But Soltani wasn’t able to get the order legally served. Deputies who tried to serve the papers were told that Diaz was out of state and that he wouldn’t be back for a week. At the time, Diaz was living with his longtime girlfriend at her gated home in Carlsbad. Soltani said he believed somebody was lying on Diaz’s behalf.

Then Soltani came up with a plan. He changed the locks on the gates at the gym. The day he knew Diaz would show up, he sent two big guys to the gym to wait for him. They would hand Diaz the restraining order through the chain-link fence.

So on Monday morning, February 15, when Diaz drove his truck up to the gates of the gym as usual, he found that he was locked out. Raul Gutierrez and Peter Moreno were waiting with the restraining order. This did not cause Diaz to go away quietly. First, he tried to make a run at the fence, but he was not able to get over it. Then Diaz dialed 911 to report two burglars inside “his” gym. About the same time, Raul Gutierrez phoned Soltani to report on how the plan was going. By the time Soltani arrived with supporting legal paperwork, he found his two tough guys on their bellies inside the gym with their hands cuffed behind them. Four or five sheriff’s squad cars and a helicopter surrounded the gym. Eventually, deputies released Raul Gutierrez and Peter Moreno and served the restraining order on Diaz.

Ten days later, on February 25, Ricky Gutierrez had his first professional fight. The day before, Gil attended the weigh-in, and they met up with professional cut man Albert Gamez, who attends to injuries during a fight. It was the first time they had met. “Hector kept asking me about Mark,” said Gamez. “He had been receiving threats from Mark.” Gil told Gamez, “That fool’s been threatening me.”

Albert Gamez had known Mark Diaz for six years. “He has helped me in the corner with my son.” Gamez’s 16-year-old son is an amateur boxer.

Diaz had called Gamez asking him “not to help Ricky” at his fight the next day. Diaz wanted the cut man to stay “on his side” and told Gamez to “do the right thing, don’t help him.” Diaz sounded angry and even threatened to sue Gamez. The cut man tried to explain that he did not take sides, that he worked for any fighter who needed his services.

Gamez said he listened to a couple of messages on Gil’s cell phone. “There was a lot of profanity,” Gamez recalled. “He was going to blast him or shoot him,” is what Gamez remembered. It was an angry tone. “You’re fucking with the wrong person. You watch, you watch, you’re going to get yours,” Gamez heard. Although the person did not leave his name, Gamez said he recognized Diaz’s voice.

Ricky Gutierrez’s fight was held at the Four Points by Sheraton San Diego. “My boy lost the fight,” said Raul Gutierrez, but everyone was proud of Ricky, agreeing his fight was the best of the night. A few minutes after the fight ended, after 10:00 p.m., Diaz called Raul Gutierrez on his cell phone, but Raul chose not to pick up the call. “Mark called me, I never answered,” he said later.

After Ricky Gutierrez broke his contract with Diaz, Diaz took him to small-claims court, asking to be reimbursed for expenses such as the medical assessment that Gutierrez needed to get his “book,” the state license that allowed him to compete as a boxer. In arbitration, Gutierrez agreed to pay Diaz $3000 in monthly $75 payments. The court document was signed March 15.

Pro fighter Danny Perez, on left, with his new trainer, soon-to-be murder victim Hector Gil.

Pro fighter Danny Perez, on left, with his new trainer, soon-to-be murder victim Hector Gil.

Another fighter who switched from Mark Diaz to Hector Gil was Danny Perez. On April 2, Perez was featured in a Las Vegas fight. It was a Friday night, and the fight was televised. Gil was there, but he kept leaving the side of the boxing ring, reportedly because he was nervous and afraid.

Bill Dean replaced convicted murderer Mark Diaz as manager of the boxing gym.

Bill Dean replaced convicted murderer Mark Diaz as manager of the boxing gym.

By Wednesday, April 7, Bill Dean was established as the new head trainer at the gym in Vista. Soltani had brought him in. “My duty was to take over the gym and manage it,” Dean said later. Soltani told his new manager that the smoking and drinking going on around the gym made a bad impression on parents; he said it was part of a bad atmosphere left over from when Diaz was running things. It was agreed that Dean would put a stop to it.

Dean opened the gym a little after 11:00 a.m., worked all day, and was instructing an evening class when he smelled cigarette smoke. He poked his head out the doorway and saw Gil and Peter Moreno lounging around the stairs that led up to the trailer door, smoking and drinking. Dean told them it didn’t look good for the students to see that, and after the men acknowledged that they had heard him, Dean went back to his training. About 8:30 p.m., after Dean finished up his last chores, he called out to Gil to be sure to lock up, and then he left.

Ricky Gutierrez had arrived at the gym a little after 7:00 p.m. that night. The gym normally closed about that time, but they kept it open for him because everybody was so proud of their local fighter. Gutierrez’s next fight was scheduled for three weeks away. He worked out in front of a group of admirers and finished about 8:30.

Nico Lopez lived a block from the gym, and he loved to go there to train and hang out. He had recently gotten his book. But his trainer, Diaz, got kicked out of the gym. “I like boxing, I love boxing, and I wanted to keep doing it,” Lopez said. He’d left messages on Diaz’s cell phone, trying to get his paperwork. “It was very important, ’cause that’s what I needed to compete.” Finally, on April 7, Diaz returned his call. “He sounded down. Not happy. You could just hear it,” Lopez remembered. “He asked how I was doing.” When Lopez asked for his book, “He said he would get it to me.”

Phone records show that Diaz phoned Nico Lopez at 8:23 p.m., and this call was made from the Carlsbad area, where Diaz lived. Then, about ten minutes later, at 8:35 p.m., Diaz called Lopez again. He spoke for only about 20 seconds. This call was transmitted by cell phone towers in Vista. Lopez was at home when Diaz called. Diaz warned him to stay away from the gym. “He just told me not to go to the gym, stay away from the gym.” Lopez said Diaz told him, “There were bad people at the gym.” Just minutes after the second call ended, Lopez said, “Then, like, I heard gunshots.”

Boxing trainer Peter Moreno 
was struck by a bullet after it passed through and killed 
Hector Gil.

Boxing trainer Peter Moreno was struck by a bullet after it passed through and killed Hector Gil.

After Ricky Gutierrez finished his workout about 8:30, he and Gil sat on the edge of the ring, on the apron, and Peter Moreno crouched down in front of them. Moreno jokingly complained about Dean telling him not to drink or smoke. “We were just hanging out, talking,” said Moreno later. Then he heard a noise. “At first I thought it was a firecracker, but it was too loud to be a firecracker.” He said Gutierrez shouted out, “Firecrackers!” and turned to look behind him in the direction of the noise. Moreno began to stand up. “As I was getting up, I felt a sharp stab pain in my shoulder,” he said later. “That’s when I knew I got shot.”

“I seen the eye of the barrel pointing at me when I got up,” said Moreno. “I noticed when I got up, I saw the gun pointing at me.” He said he could see the shooter in the doorway. “First shot was the one that hit me. I seen a chrome gun and an arm sticking out. He had a hoodie on. But I couldn’t make out the face.

“Then he shot like four times.

“I got up and I ran to the light switch and I turned it off, just in case he decided to come back and start shooting some more,” said Moreno. “To make sure if that person decided to come back, he couldn’t see us.”

Ricky Gutierrez said that when he looked behind him, he could see a silhouette in the doorway. He saw the smoke from a gunshot and a hand extending through the door holding a chrome-colored gun. Gutierrez got up and ran toward a far corner of the gym. “I felt a bullet right through my tibia and fibula — broke both bones in half.”

Moreno saw Gil stand up, but then Gil’s eyes rolled back, and he went down. “Right there where he was standing he fell on the ground,” said Moreno. “He fell facedown.”

Investigators later determined that the slug that passed through Gil’s back and out his chest then slammed into Peter Moreno’s left shoulder and lodged there.

Hector Gil Junior, who was in his 30s, had never met Diaz, but he knew about the threats left on his dad’s cell phone. He had gone to the gym that night with his dad to be supportive. Gil Jr. was in a corner of the gym when he heard the gunshots. He looked up toward the doorway and, “I just saw the gun and the fire coming out of the gun.”

Gil Jr. said he ran toward the doorway. He saw somebody running down the stairs, away from the gym. But the lights went off, and he screamed for someone to turn them back on. When the lights came on, he saw his father lying facedown in a pool of blood. He ran to his father, who remained on the floor while everyone else got up. He turned his father over and lifted his shirt. He did not see the exit wound, which was higher up on his chest. He took this as a good sign.

“I was telling him, ‘Don’t go to sleep, don’t go to sleep,’” Gil Jr. remembered.

But his father closed his eyes.

“I remember Hector Gil Jr. crying for his dad,” said Gutierrez later. “He was on top of his dad, giving him a hug.”

Six shots were fired. Three people were hit. Field evidence technicians photographed three bullet gouges in the hard surface of the boxing ring floor and bullet holes in the far wall of the gym. It was 28 feet from the doorway to Hector Gil’s body. A year later in court, the prosecutor showed a photo of an ugly red, swollen bullet wound in the dead center of Hector Gil Sr.’s back.

The murder weapon was never recovered. Hector Gil was declared dead at 9:20 p.m.

In the shopping center across the street from the gym, some friends had met for dinner. Afterwards, as the women and children walked to a frutería, the men, idling in the parking lot, heard screeching tires and loud exhaust pipes. They turned their heads to see a customized Nissan Titan bump over a curb, speed past them, and park at the farthest corner of the lot. The truck’s lights went out, and the men went back to their conversation. After some minutes, they heard loud noises like firecrackers and saw a heavyset man jog from the direction of the gym toward the Nissan. The man got into the truck, started it up, backed out without turning on the headlights, and slowly drove off.

When authorities arrived at the gym, somebody immediately suggested that the new manager, Bill Dean, was the shooter. Later, no one would admit to mentioning Dean’s name. But at the time, deputies quickly put out word that they were looking for Dean, and the manager was contacted by phone and asked to return to the gym.

Dean had just arrived home. He drove back to the gym, pulled up under the crime scene tape, and parked. Deputies pulled him out of the cab, their guns drawn.

Soltani arrived in time to witness this, and he suggested to investigators that they should be looking for Mark Diaz.

The next morning, law enforcement located Diaz in his girlfriend’s Carlsbad home. A SWAT team was called in to make the arrest, and team members drove an armored vehicle up to the front door to order Diaz out. Diaz was arrested at 2:00 p.m.

Diaz’s truck was confiscated from the driveway of his girlfriend’s home. Gunshot residue was found on the steering wheel.

At a hearing before the trial, a friend of Diaz named Peter Scanlon testified that he had seen a silver-colored gun in Diaz’s home. It was just weeks before the shooting when Scanlon said he saw it “on the dining room table.” Scanlon said, “I asked him to put it away so we could talk. We were having a beef.”

He said that was the only time he ever saw the gun.

Prosecutor Patrick Espinoza mocked the “taco defense.”

Prosecutor Patrick Espinoza mocked the “taco defense.”

The two-week trial began on April 12, 2011. More than 30 witnesses were called. Defense attorneys suggested that Diaz drove from his home in Carlsbad to Vista that night to go to his favorite taco place. Prosecutor Patrick Espinoza sneered at what he called the “taco defense” and said Diaz shot Gil in frustration over losing everything to the rival trainer.

It took less than two days’ deliberation for the jury to declare Diaz guilty on all counts: the murder of Hector Gil, attempted murder of Ricky Gutierrez, felony assault with a firearm on Peter Moreno, and making felony criminal threats.

Sentencing is scheduled for September 16 before the same judge who heard the trial, the Honorable Kerry Wells. Judge Wells is expected to send Mark Diaz to state prison for more than 90 years.

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