15-year-old charged as adult in New Year's Eve killing

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A 15-year-old from Santa Rosa was charged as an adult Friday in a New Year's Eve slaying outside a Piner Road apartment complex.

Joseph Mario Varela was charged with a single count of murder and gun enhancements in the early morning shooting of Damien Wadell Toney Jr., 20, at the Redwood Park Apartments.

In a rare occurrence on the North Coast, Varela, who faces a maximum 25-years-to-life sentence, was charged as an adult because he is 14 or older, prosecutor Bud McMahon said.

The thinly built teenager appeared to be holding back tears as he was led into a Santa Rosa courtroom with his hands shackled to his waist.

Judge Dana Simonds appointed the Public Defender's Office to represent Varela and ordered him back to court Jan. 17 for possible plea.

He is being held at Juvenile Hall without bail.

Outside court, a woman identified as his mother declined to talk to reporters.

"I really don't think this is something that has to be written about," she said.

Public Defender Kathleen Pozzi said Varela had no prior criminal record. She declined further comment, saying she had just received police reports.

However, she didn't rule out the possibility that Varela may have acted in defense of himself or others. She said it was rare for someone Varela's age to be charged as an adult.

Though it is unusual for a suspect younger than 16 to be tried in adult court, it is not unprecedented on the North Coast. In 2003, Sophoul Paul Hin and Pongsony Khaoone, both 15, faced charges in connection with the shooting death of Jonathan Townsend, 18, of Windsor.

Both ultimately pleaded no contest or guilty to lesser charges, while the adult who shot Townsend, Ricky Phachanh, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter.

In 2008, Marcos Escareno, 15, faced murder charges in the killing of 21-year-old Enoc Cruz, his sister's estranged boyfriend, in Manchester. A jury deadlocked on whether Escareno, who was 14 at the time of Cruz's killing, was fit to stand trial. He later pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and using a gun to kill Cruz and was sentenced to 10 years in a state juvenile correctional facility.

Police responding to the apartment complex to reports of shots fired around 2 a.m. found Toney lying outside with bullet wounds in his torso and arm.

He was treated at the scene and taken to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital where he later died.

Varela was arrested later in the day. He and Toney appeared to be attending a party at the complex where as many as 40 people had gathered, a witness said.

Police believe a dispute started inside at the party and continued outside.

Varela is believed to have fled to a nearby residence. A handgun was recovered.

Under the law, prosecutors can file charges in adult criminal court against a person 14 years or older when they have been charged with murder or when the they have been charged with personally using a firearm in the commission or attempted commission of a felony.

Both of these grounds are alleged in the criminal complaint against Varela, according to a statement from the District Attorney's Office.

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com.

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