Man pleads guilty to shooting fellow Rancho Santa Fe gardener in 1988


Coming up on 31 years after a gardener was shot in front of a Rancho Santa Fe home, the long-suspected gunman — a fellow gardener — pleaded guilty Wednesday, Sept. 4, to opening fire on the victim.

The victim survived, and sheriff’s detectives quickly zeroed in on a suspect in the December 1988 shooting: Simon L. Mayo. Prosecutors filed an attempted murder charge the following year. But, authorities said, Mayo had fled the country.

In December, sheriff’s detectives found him living in Texas.

Mayo, now 58, pleaded guilty in Vista Superior Court to one count of assault with a deadly weapon, and allegations of causing great bodily injury and personal use of a firearm, Deputy District Attorney Keith Watanabe said.

Mayo will be sentenced Oct. 3 to nine years in state prison, the prosecutor said.

“The victim is satisfied with this settlement of the case,” Watanabe said in an email. “After 30 years of waiting for justice, he was pleased to know (Mayo) admitted his guilt.”

According to testimony at Mayo’s preliminary hearing in April, Mayo and the victim, Jose Luiz Nava-Hernandez, had a contentious relationship.

Back in 1988, someone had smashed the windows of Mayo’s car, leaving it so badly damaged, Mayo junked it. He suspected he knew who the vandal was — the man with whom he had a history of conflict.

The victim took the stand and testified that on Dec. 12, 1988, he was working in front of a home on Luna de Meil, south of Del Dios Road, when he saw Mayo with a gun. He turned to flee, he said, and the gunman opened fire.

Prosecutors filed charges against Mayo. But with him missing, the case stalled.

Fast forward to last year, when authorities checking into old warrants learned that Mayo was living in Texas. He was arrested there, one day shy of 30 years from the shooting.

In April, sheriff’s Detective Rosa Patron said that after his arrest, Mayo told her that he had gone to his landscaping job that morning in 1988 when he spotted the victim working at a nearby home.

She said Mayo told her he grabbed a gun — it was in the pickup he was using — and told his adversary to pay up for the damage to his car. When Nava-Hernandez refused, Mayo shot him and fled to Mexico.

Mayo’s defense attorney, Dan Greene, said his client had no prior criminal convictions, and no other arrests in the years after the shooting. He also said his client had been honest with authorities when he was picked up in December.

“He wasn’t someone who was out there constantly trying to hurt people,” Greene said. “In a case like this, we have the benefit of seeing who a person becomes over time. And in the last 30 years, he was not defined by this one altercation he had in life.”

-- Teri Figueroa is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune