Erik Rocha Fernandez

Two Santa Maria men have pleaded not guilty to conspiracy charges in a murder-for-hire plot allegedly hatched by one defendant who's jailed in connection to a May shooting death near Preisker Lane and North Broadway

Erik Rocha Fernandez, 21, made an in-person Santa Barbara County Superior Court appearance on July 16 to enter his not guilty plea to charges of murder, attempted murder, conspiracy and other counts in two separate cases related to the May 28 shooting death of 29-year-old Frankie Placido Hernandez, according to Deputy District Attorney Madison Whitmore. 

Fernandez was originally charged June 2 with first-degree murder in the death of Hernandez, who was found shot inside his vehicle.

Additionally, Fernandez was charged with two counts of attempted murder, and one count each of possession of a controlled substance and selling or transporting a controlled substance. He also denied four sentencing enhancements, including for alleged circumstances that he was a habitual criminal who committed a violent felony by ambushing and shooting his victim. 

An initial investigation showed that Hernandez was shot near the intersection of North Broadway and East Grant Street, then drove approximately a half mile north before his vehicle stopped along the on-ramp leading to Highway 101 shortly after 2 a.m., according to Santa Maria Police Lt. Terry Flaa. Hernandez was declared dead at the scene. 

Fernandez was arrested May 30 and booked into Santa Barbara County Jail. He did not have a bail amount listed. 

Then on June 22, while still in jail, Fernandez was charged with one count of conspiracy, two counts of solicitation of murder, witness intimidation and a serious felony enhancement. 

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The complaint alleges that Fernandez conspired with 26-year-old Ruben Vega to kill two witnesses who Fernandez accused of providing police with information in the May 28 shooting death of Hernandez. 

Vega, who's listed as a transient, was arrested shortly after 5:30 p.m. June 25 in the 200 block of East Grant Street in Santa Maria and his bail was listed at $2 million, according to Sheriff's Office logs.

Vega was charged with one count each of conspiracy to commit murder and witness intimidation and denied two serious felony enhancements in a stand-alone complaint. He pleaded not guilty to the charges on June 29. 

Through a series of phone calls from June 13 to June 15, Fernandez instructed Vega to collect "hella ammo," or a stockpile of ammunition, located inside a storage unit, provide it to a second hitman identified only as "Christian R." and find where the witnesses lived, according to court documents. 

Michael Scott, Vega's attorney, said his client is not charged in the May 28 death of Hernandez and said that his client's charges stem from the attempt to obtain ammunition to be used by a third party to shoot the witnesses, who were not shot at. Scott denied Vega's involvement in the conspiracy. 

Vega is scheduled for a preliminary hearing setting at 1:30 p.m. on July 22 in Department 1 of Superior Court in Santa Maria. 

Fernandez is scheduled to appear at 8:30 a.m. Aug 4. in Department 6 of Superior Court in Santa Maria.