LAWRENCEVILLE - Six years ago, prosecutors say Celerino Palma and another man used their clout as Vatos Locos gang leaders to order the first purely gang-related shooting in Gwinnett County.
On Thursday, Palma became the last of the gang members to be sentenced in connection with the fatal shooting at Pinckneyville Park in Norcross.
A conviction by a jury in December 2003 put Palma behind bars for life plus five years for murder and possession of a firearm. However, the state Supreme Court overturned the conviction last year because of a technicality.
Palma returned to court Thursday. Instead of gambling on another jury trial, he entered a negotiated guilty plea to lesser charges. He accepted an eight-year prison sentence followed by seven years of probation.
Dressed in a white state prison jumpsuit, Palma spoke little during the hearing, replying "yes" to several questions and keeping his hands clasped behind his back.
"I think Palma had to go through a trial and see he was going to be convicted before he agreed to plead guilty," said Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter.
A fellow gang leader, Jorge Nolasco, struck a similar deal with prosecutors several years ago and also avoided a life sentence. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison followed by five years of probation.
The shooters, female gang members Hasia Sauceda and Janeth Olarte, cooperated with authorities, pleaded guilty to reduced charges and were sentenced to five years in prison.
According to the state's case, Palma and Nolasco never fired the shots that struck and killed 18-year-old Mechelle Torres or injured her friend, Robin Rainey, who was then 17. Palma and Nolasco ordered the killings and Palma provided guns to the two female gang members.
Porter has said the female gang members, both 16-year-old runaways, were brainwashed by these older men who took them in. He likened them to victims of Stockholm syndrome who learn to sympathize with their captors.
"He and Nolasco were part of this loosely organized group and they were sort of running the show," Porter said. "They planned to punish Robin for some previous things she had done."
Rainey testified during Palma's 2003 trial that her former friends planned the execution because she betrayed Vatos Locos by hanging out with members of a rival gang.
At the time, the incident served as a wake-up call to local residents that gangs were no longer just an Atlanta problem - they had migrated to Gwinnett.
Since everyone connected with the Pinckneyville Park shooting has been prosecuted, there is no longer an active branch of the Vatos Locos gang operating in Gwinnett.
"They haven't re-emerged, but others have come to take their place," Porter said.
There are still Vatos Locos gang members in Fulton County and elsewhere in the country, Porter said.