COOK COUNTY CRIMINAL COURTHOUSE — A man charged in the deaths of a child and her pregnant mother in an Albany Park fire set to get revenge on a rival gang was found guilty of murder Tuesday night.
The Spanish Cobras and the Spanish Gangster Disciples — "SGDs" for short — were at war in Albany Park in 2009 when Rosanna Ocampo, 23, and 7-year-old Itzel Fernandez became the unintended targets of the arson, prosecutors alleged.
Jovan Djurdjlov, 18 at the time of the fire, was gunning for rival members of the SGDs — he believed they had thrown a brick through the window of his home — when he set a blaze at a building on Jan. 31, 2009, said Assistant State's Attorney Thomas Darman during closing statements at the weeklong trial Tuesday.
The flames never found their target, he said. Instead, the fire ripped through the three-flat, killing Ocampo and Itzel, he said.
Djurdjlov "wasn't looking to kill that 7-year-old or that 23-year-old pregnant woman, but the way the law shakes out, it doesn't matter," Darman said, asking jurors to find the defendant guilty of murder.
Over the course of the trial, jurors have heard a story of gang warfare on the Northwest Side.
Djurdjlov, who goes by the name "Yogi," was ultimately identified as the culprit by police. But the investigation was wrought with challenges because witnesses refused to talk.
"Remember the rule: No snitching," Darman said.
Another Spanish Cobra, Franco Avila, was identified by witnesses in 2009 as possibly having a hand in the arson, prosecutors said.
A short time later, the 17-year-old was murdered, possibly in retaliation by the people who had been targeted in the fire, according to Tribune reports.
Prosecutors called witnesses affiliated with gangs to testify against Djurdjlov. But all of them have a history of lying or some personal interest in pleasing the state's attorney's office, defense attorneys argued.
One Spanish Cobra brought in by police on an unrelated shooting ultimately identified Djurdjlov, telling cops that he confessed to the arson.
Michael Santiago said that "Yogi" showed up at his place on the West Side on the night the blaze was set. He reeked of gasoline and asked to use the bathroom to change clothes, the witness testified.
As the group drank and smoked marijuana in Santiago's living room, a news broadcast about the fire came on TV, Santiago said.
"Yogi said, 'Damn, that's what I did,'" Santiago testified.
But when police initially asked Santiago about the fire, he denied knowledge of it, he admitted. That was a lie, he testified.
"I had people in the gang coming to me and saying consequence may happen," said Santiago.
Criminal defense attorney Michael Monaco argued that Santiago as well as other witnesses called by the state could not be trusted to tell the truth.
He said that Santiago, who was arrested in connection to an unrelated shooting, was bullied by authorities to change his story. He also called other gang member witnesses who refuted Santiago's account of events.
Quoting author Oscar Wilde in dramatic fashion, Monaco cautioned the jury: "The truth is never pure and rarely simple.
This case "is not as simple as the state would have you believe," he said.
After deliberating for about four hours Tuesday, jurors sided with the prosecution, finding Djurdjlov guilty of arson and both counts of murder.