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FARMINGTON — Two brothers are each facing possible life sentences in connection to the fatal shooting at Animas Valley Mall in April.

Magistrate Judge Stanley King ruled after a preliminary hearing Wednesday that Alejandro Ramirez, 22, will face 11 felonies, including an open count of murder, in district court for his alleged role in the death of Johnny "Ben-G" Vialpando, 25.

Johnny Vialpando was shot nine times as he sat in the front seat of his family's vehicle parked at Animas Valley Mall on April 27. Prosecutors said Alejandro Ramirez fired the shots that killed Vialpando in front of his wife and children.

Luis Ramirez, 28, is accused of driving the getaway vehicle and, moments before the shooting, handing his brother the gun used to kill Vialpando.

Alejandro Ramirez
Alejandro Ramirez (Courtesy of Farmington Police Department)
King sent the eight felonies charged against him to district court after a preliminary hearing on May 8.

The Ramirez brothers, who live in Kirtland, are charged with murder, conspiracy to commit murder, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, shooting at or from a motor vehicle, three counts of child abuse and tampering with evidence. Alejandro Ramirez is also charged with possession of more than eight ounces of marijuana, possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and possession of a firearm by a felon.

The preliminary hearings for both brothers began with Johnny Vialpando's wife, Rhiannon Vialpando, testifying about the moments leading up to the shooting.

She said she and her husband and their three oldest children, who are 16, 14 and 10, were shopping together and quickly stopped by the mall at about 4:30 p.m. that Saturday to buy Johnny Vialpando a hat.

After a 20-minute shopping trip, they returned to the family's Dodge Durango. Rhiannon Vialpando was driving, Johnny Vialpando was in the front passenger seat and the three children were seated in the back when a short man with long wavy hair Johnny Vialpando called "Little Alex" approached the vehicle.

Police said "Little Alex" was Alejandro Ramirez, a 5-foot, 2-inch tall known gang member with one prior felony conviction for selling marijuana.

Alejandro Ramirez and Johnny Vialpando had a short conversation, Rhiannon Vialpando said in court. Alejandro Ramirez said he was just released from prison - though he has never been to prison - and asked Johnny Vialpando if he was "still gang bangin'" to which Johnny Vialpando said "no, that's nonsense," Rhiannon Vialpando said.

Then Alejandro Ramirez asked Johnny Vialpando if he goes to church and he asked for a ride and his phone number.

That's when, Rhiannon Vialpando said, a white Chevrolet Blazer came to a stop behind her, blocking her in a parking space on the east side of the mall parking lot.

She said Alejandro Ramirez walked over to the Blazer, grabbed something from the driver, and walked back over to Johnny Vialpando's window. He held a gun to Johnny Vialpando's head and said "This is for Gary," and started shooting, Rhiannon Vialpando said. She said she held her husband's arm as he was shot in the head, chest and shoulder.

"I had nowhere to go," Rhiannon Vialpando said. "I was in shock."

Johnny Vialpando was pronounced dead at San Juan Regional Medical Center at 5:11 p.m.

Police have said "Gary" may refer to Gary Martinez, a 17 year old who was killed in a gang-related shooting in 2007 in south Farmington. Police said Vialpando had ties to local gangs at the time of the Martinez shooting and Johnny Vialpando was targeted in two drive-by shootings after Martinez's death, but he was never charged with a crime in connection to Martinez's death.

Thomas Clark, Alejandro Ramirez's attorney, asked Rhiannon Vialpando questions about her husband's gang affiliations but she said she never knew him when he associated with gang members.

"He wasn't affiliated with any gangs when I knew him," Rhiannon Vialpando said. "That wasn't what I knew so I don't know what to tell you."

The Ramirez brother fled east toward Aztec on New Mexico Highway 516 after the shooting, police said.

San Juan County Sheriff's Office Deputy Sam Cordova said he was driving his patrol on County Road 3000 when he saw the Ramirez brothers heading west on the road. He started to follow the Blazer and Cordova and two other deputies pulled over the vehicle and arrested the two brothers about 15 minutes after the shooting.

A semi-automatic pistol that fires .32-caliber bullets — the same type used in the shooting — was found near county roads 350 and 3000, less than a mile from where the Ramirez brothers were arrested.

The gun had scratches on it that made it look like it had skidded across cement, Farmington police Detective Heather Chavez said.

San Juan County Deputy District Attorney Casey Stone said the gun is being tested to determine if it was the same weapon used in the shooting.

In the vehicle the Ramirez brothers were driving, police found nearly a pound of marijuana, scales and almost an ounce of cocaine separated into small bags, Farmington police Detective John Bonnell said in court.

Alejandro Ramirez was carrying more than $3,000 in cash and was charged in connection to the drugs.

At the time of the shooting he was also on probation for a distribution of marijuana conviction in 2011.

Ryan Boetel covers crime for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644 and Follow him on Twitter @rboetel