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Gang members sentenced for murdering teen couple

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VISTA, Calif. – Two gang members who participated in a retaliation shooting that killed two teenagers and left two others wounded in an Oceanside park were sentenced Friday.

Martin Melendrez, 25, who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and attempted murder, was sentenced to 40 years to life behind bars.

Santo Diaz, 22, who was acquitted of first-degree murder then pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter, was sentenced to 39 years in prison.

The defendants were among four people charged in the March 13, 2013, shooting that killed 13-year-old Melanie Virgen and her 15-year-old friend, Edgar Sanchez at Libby Lake Park. The teenagers were innocent victims of a conflict between rival gangs, authorities said.

Oceanside police said the gunmen fired on the victims about 9 p.m. near a makeshift memorial for two teens who had been killed in the park.  According to the prosecution, the victims were all sitting near each other on a couch that had been placed near the memorial when they were fired upon. The memorial was for Sandra Salgado, 14, and her boyfriend, 16-year-old Fernando Solano, who were gunned down in a gang assault two years earlier.

Before the two gunmen learned their fate, they apologized for murdering Virgen and Sanchez.

“I know there’s no real words I can say,” said Melendrez through a statement given by his attorney. “I am truly remorseful for the event that occurred that night at Libby Lake and for the loss of innocent lives.”

“I’d like to apologize for your losses. I’m very sorry for what happened,” said Diaz as he faced the victims’ families.

The teenagers were innocent victims of a conflict between rival gangs, authorities said.

“He had a heart of gold and a smile and attitude that would make anyone’s day,” said the cousin of Rios.

At Friday’s sentencing, family members of the two victims made their pleas for justice.

“I pray to God the justice system won’t fail us,” said Nataly Sanchez, sister of Rios.

Several members of the defendant’s families apologized for the crime.

“I know that to say sorry doesn’t resolve things,” said the mother of Diaz.

“My brother’s not a bad guy and I know he can do something positive with his life,” said Diaz’ sister.

Diaz echoed his sister’s sentiment, promising life after prison would be different.

“I’m changing and I want to become someone who is successful when I get out,” said Diaz.

Freedom, however, won’t be for another four decades.

“It feels like we’re getting justice for them. It still doesn’t bring them back,” said Sanchez.

Though the loss is still painful, both victims’ families said there is some sense of closure with Menlendrez and Diaz in prison.

“They won’t be out on the streets and another family won’t be going through what we’re going through,” said Sanchez.