Jury convicts Lindsay gang member in 2012 murder of 19-year-old

Norteno gang member

Joshua Stepp, 30 years old, of Lindsay.

Joshua Stepp faces life in prison for murdering Michael Avalos, 19, of Lindsay on orders from death row “Psycho” Eric Jimenez

By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN

VISALIA – A Lindsay gang member is facing life in prison for killing a 19-year-old who was trying to put his gang affiliations behind him.

On June 18, a Tulare County jury convicted 30-year-old Joshua Stepp of Lindsay of second-degree murder with the special allegation of using a deadly weapon. In the early morning hours of Sept. 14, 2012, Stepp was at his friend’s house in Lindsay when the victim, 19-year-old Michael Avalos visited the house. Stepp believed Avalos had incriminating information against a fellow Norteno gang member, 34-year-old Eric Jimenez of Strathmore.

On March 28 of that year, Stepp’s fellow Norteno gang member, 34-year-old Eric Jimenez and another gang member, 29-year-old Matthew Campos, walked in to the Porterville garage of Jimenez’s girlfriend, Raquel Espinosa, 31, who was talking to the 39-year-old male victim. Knowing the victim often carried money and drugs, Jimenez, who was known by his nickname “Psycho,” pistol whipped the victim and held his hands while Campos struck him with brass knuckles. Jimenez then used an electrical cord to strangle the victim to death. Jimenez and Campos robbed the victim of drugs and money before they rolled him up in a carpet and put him in the extended cab of his own truck.

Jimenez dropped Campos off at his residence before continuing on to a private mechanic shed outside of Porterville. At the shed, Jimenez placed the victim’s body in a service pit, poured gasoline over the body, and ignited it. The owner of the property saw smoke and notified the authorities.

On April 23, 2012, Jimenez was arrested by Porterville Police officers for being in possession of brass knuckles. On May 25, 2012, Campos, who had spoken about the crime to friends, was arrested along with Espinosa.

According to his family, Avalos was a typical Tulare County kid. He attended Strathmore Elementary School and later Lincoln Elementary School after his family moved to Lindsay. He played baseball and basketball, liked camping, fishing and skateboarding. He was even a budding artist. Beginning in high school, Avalos, like many young men, was ensnared by the false promises of gangs, first at Strathmore High School and later at Lindsay High School. Gangs were what Avalos knew and comprised most of his friends, including Stepp and Campos. By the time he turned 19, Avalos tried to leave the life of gangs. And, according to police, he had done a good job. But as many gang members will tell you, the only way to leave a gang is to die.

After the arrests of Campos and Espinoza, Jimenez became concerned that Avalos might have information implicating him in the March murder. While in custody, Jimenez ordered Stepp to murder Avalos.

On Sept. 14, Stepp knocked Avalos unconscious and then proceeded to stab the 19-year-old repeatedly repeatedly in the chest and neck and loaded him into a car with the help of Stepp’s friend, Nathan Hunt, 28, leaving only a bloody cell phone in the grass. Stepp then drove to an orchard outside Lindsay and set the car and the body on fire.

Hunt was arrested later that day at his home in Lindsay while Stepp fled to Missouri. U.S. Marshals arrested Stepp on Sept. 17, 2012 while he was trying to board a train in Kansas City, and extradited him back to Tulare County. Hunt pleaded to voluntary manslaughter and other crimes in 2014 and is facing over 30 years in prison at sentencing on July 12, 2019. Stepp’s sentencing is scheduled for July 24, 2019, in Tulare County Superior Court where he faces up to 42 years-to-life in prison. A 2017 jury previously convicted Stepp of arson, but was unable to reach a unanimous decision on the charge of murder. Stepp possesses a 2008 strike for attempted carjacking with a knife.

In April of 2018, Jimenez was convicted of second degree murder in Avalos’ killing and is currently on death row for the robbing, killing and burning of another man that he thought Campos had told Avalos about. Campos was convicted of second-degree murder on Nov. 9, 2017, and sentenced to 16 years-to-life in prison. Raquel Espinoza pleaded to accessory after the fact and is awaiting sentencing.

This case was prosecuted by Supervising Deputy District Attorney Melissa Chabra and was investigated by Sergeant Steve Sanchez of the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department and Criminal Investigator Jerry Hunzinger of the District Attorney’s Bureau of Investigations.

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