BANNING (CNS) – Jury selection got underway Monday for the trial of a convicted felon accused of gunning down a 21-year-old Beaumont woman during a botched kidnapping.
Samuel Jesus Acosta, 34, could face life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted of the March 2017 slaying of Jasmine Zuniga.
Acosta, who’s being held without bail at the Smith Correctional Facility in Banning, is charged with first-degree murder, kidnapping, attempted kidnapping, assault with a deadly weapon, assault with a gun resulting in great bodily injury and a special circumstance allegation of killing in the course of a kidnapping.
Riverside County Superior Court Judge Timothy Hollenhorst summoned multiple panels of prospective jurors to the Banning Justice Center for screening as to their availability and qualifications. Jury selection is expected to conclude next week, and the trial is likely to last seven days.
Acosta’s 36-year-old sister, Francisca Perla Acosta, and his girfriend, 27-year-old Erika Cristell Garcia, and with two other co-defendants – 28-year-old Ernest Ralph Granados and 26-year-old Matthew Zeus Munoz – all pleaded guilty to felony charges in September.
Francisca Acosta admitted an accessory charge and received three years probation; Garcia admitted a kidnapping charge and was sentenced to four years in state prison; Granados admitted an allegation of attempted kidnapping while armed and was sentenced to seven years behind bars; and Munoz admitted kidnapping and accessory charges and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
According to a supplemental brief filed by Deputy District Attorney Dan DeLimon, Samuel Acosta led a quasi-gang known as “Southside Beaumont,” with which several of his co-defendants were associated.
In March 2017, they decided to try kidnapping as a means to further Southside Beaumont’s interests in some unspecified way, according to the prosecution.
The first alleged target was an acquaintance of Acosta, Michael Polonis, whom the defendant and Munoz allegedly picked up in the San Gorgonio Pass on the evening of March 3 and drove back to Acosta’s residence on Michigan Avenue, according to the brief.
Polonis later told Beaumont police detectives that Munoz held him at gunpoint and threatened his life while Acosta allegedly drove.
According to the brief, several other co-defendants were present when the vehicle pulled up to the front of Acosta’s house, at which point Polonis jumped out of the car and began tussling with the defendants.
“Polonis fought because he believed that Acosta and his crime partners would kill him if they succeeded in dragging him into the residence,” the brief states. “After fighting for some time, Michael was able to break free and escape.”
Polonis got away, and Acosta allegedly then plotted to abduct another acquaintance – Zuniga – the following night. According to the prosecution, the woman was invited to Acosta’s property, and when she pulled into the driveway, the defendant and his cohorts surrounded her pickup.
DeLimon alleged that Acosta was armed with a high-caliber semiautomatic rifle and leveled it at Zuniga before she even had an opportunity to step out of her truck.
“Acosta raised the rifle directly as Jasmine,” according to the brief. “Seconds later, Acosta discharged the gun directly as her.”
It was unclear whether Zuniga had tried to throw the pickup into reverse. She was struck in the stomach, mortally wounded. according to the prosecution.
One of the conspirators pushed Zuniga into the passenger seat and drove the pickup a short distance away from the residence.
According to investigators, patrol officers were called to the area immediately after Acosta allegedly opened fire, which prompted neighbors to report reckless gunfire.
Zuniga was found dead in her pickup that night, and detectives soon developed leads pointing to Acosta and the others, who were arrested during a series of raids conducted by Beaumont police and Riverside and San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies three weeks later.
Acosta has a prior conviction for battery resulting in great bodily injury, according to court records.