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SANTA ANA — Three prisoners were sentenced to 19 to 22 years in federal prison Monday for beating a fellow inmate to death in a federal prison in Victorville in 2013, prosecutors said.

Aurelio Patino, 40, who most recently lived in Riverside, Christopher Ruiz, 49, most recently of San Diego, and Jose Villegas, 42, most recently of Los Angeles, were convicted in January of last year of second-degree murder in the Oct. 1, 2013, killing of 38-year-old Javier Sanchez.

Sanchez was serving a 10-year sentence for drug charges. He had been asked to stop using drugs by a gang, but continued to. The victim had also been skimming money owed to higher ups in the gang, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.

Patino, who was sentenced to 22 years in prison, was serving a 16-month sentence at the time for being a felon in possession of a gun and ammunition, Ruiz was behind bars on a 10-year sentence for racketeering and methamphetamine-related charges, and Villegas was in prison for 15 years for a methamphetamine case, prosecutors said.

Ruiz and Villegas were sentenced to 19 years in federal prison.

Patino’s sister, Norma Cruz, wrote a letter to U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney asking for leniency.

“I remember Aurelio as a happy, friendly and outgoing child,” she wrote. “He enjoyed playing sports, especially baseball. He was never a kid who would get in trouble.”

She said their parents “taught us to work hard and to always to the right thing,” Cruz said.

She said her brother hopes to “study to get his contractors license and work hard to buy his house. Aurelio has a good heart, he enjoys helping people and has so much to offer. I pray that Aurelio is given the opportunity to prove that he can be a good citizen.”

The beating took place in the recreation yard of the prison, attorneys said during the trial.

Defense attorney Melissa Weinberger, who represents Ruiz, told jurors that shot callers in the prison directed the men to beat the victim, but not kill him.

“These three guys were not shot-callers,” Weinberger said. “They were soldiers.”

Weinberger characterized the killing as an accident. According to one inmate witness, one of the attackers kept looking over his shoulder, waiting for a guard to stop them, she added.

“It was 40 minutes from the beginning of the assault and Mr. Sanchez receiving any aid,” Weinberger said. “And that’s the reason he died. They did not intend … They didn’t plan to kill him.”

Defense attorney Humberto Diaz, who represents Villegas, said the defendants had no choice in attacking the victim because they would open themselves up to punishment from the so-called Mexican Mafia if they objected or refused.

“This assault was out in the open,” Diaz said. “Nobody was hiding. There’s a camera pointed in that general direction.”

The men assaulted the victim for about 10 minutes, Diaz said.

“The plan was very simple,” Diaz said. “Assault until they come to get you … Your marching orders are you keep doing it until they come to get you. The problem was no one came to stop them … somebody should have come … we don’t really know why no one came.”

Diaz suggested there was an “interesting” Major League Baseball playoff game on TV at the time.

“These three men … They accept responsibility … but they did not kill with premeditation,” Diaz said.

The Southern California ɫ̳ Group staff contributed to this story.

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