Prosecutor: Suspects charged in 4-year-old Ava Castillo’s murder were on “sophisticated” crime spree

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HOUSTON -- Prosecutors on Monday outlined the steps of three suspects accused of engaging in a reckless, violent crime spree which ended with the murder of 4-year-old Ava Castillo. Philip Battles, 18, Ferrell Dardar, 17, and Marco Miller, 17, appeared in a Harris County courthouse to face murder charges in the death of the little girl, whose life was cut short with a bullet to the head.

Prosecutor Angela Weltin said it was a "sophisticated style of aggravated robbery," and the trio intentionally targeted the young family.

Ava, her 10-year-old sister and their mother, Diana Gomez, were unloading groceries from their car around 8:40 p.m. on Nov. 14 at the Mission Falls apartments on Greens Road when the three suspects drove up and demanded the mother's purse.

Bullets rang out, and all three victims were shot.

Ava's mother and sister were taken to Memorial Hermann Hospital, and survived their injuries, but Ava's wound was fatal. Weltin said it was no accident and the suspects were well aware that they were firing upon children.

"The shot to the 4-year-old was in the forehead. A gun shooting at the head of a child is indicative of intent," Weltin said.

The suspects fled the scene, but a Crime Stoppers tip for another aggravated robbery led them to Battles.

"He had property of a different aggravated robbery at his home -- a cellphone that was stolen at another aggravated robbery. He was questioned and the officers were able then to follow up with the other individuals responsible for the death of Ava," Weltin explained.

The suspects admitted to having a hand, in some part, to the robbery, but not in Ava's death.

"Phillip Battles admitted only to him being the driver of the stolen vehicle involved in the aggravated robbery. None of them called themselves the shooter. Everybody was very careful to not want to take responsibility for the death of this 4-year-old child," Weltin said.

Investigators, however, have detailed what parts they believe each person played.

"Phillip Battles, we intend to show that he was the driver of the stolen vehicle that was watching out to look for and prey on the victim in this case, selecting her to approach. We believe that Ferrrell Dardar was the shooter. There is evidence that he was the gunman in this case, and currently we believe that Marco Miller was acting as a lookout as well as participating in this aggravated robbery," Weltin said.

No matter who pulled the trigger, all can be held accountable, in the eyes of the law.

"In Texas, the law is if you help and you are purposefully involving yourself in an aggravated robbery, and somebody is killed in the course of that, everyone can be held criminally responsible for that shooter's actions," Weltin said. "And in this case, as far as the capital murder goes, not only do we have a case in which they were committing a robbery when the murder happened, they killed a 4-year-old child. That also, in and of itself, is a capital murder. So this is almost like two levels or layers of capital murder that happened in this case."

The robbery of Gomez and her daughters is not the only one connected to the suspects. Prosecutors say Dardar was already out on bond for several counts of aggravated robbery when this crime was committed, and Battles is accused of murdering 62-year-old Ignacio Ortega on Nov. 7.

"Phillip Battles was charged with several other aggravated robberies, and another robbery death. In a very short period of time, a lot of damage was done. A lot of violent acts were committed by these individuals," Weltin said.

Where justice is concerned, Weltin explained that a capital murder charge works a little differently for 17-year-old offenders.

"They can not get life without parole, they are not eligible for the death penalty because of their age and the youthfulness of their age. However, they can still get up to life in prison with parole," Weltin said.

Weltin said her thoughts and prayers go out to Gomez and her family.

"I think the community has been very supportive at this terrible time, at this Christmas time, to be there for them, but there's no rest or relief for this mother or this family." Weltin said.

Battles, Dardar and Miller are all being held without bond.