Murderous seductress? Or an innocent young woman with a jealous boyfriend?
Lawyers in Orange County Superior Court on Monday painted sharply different portraits of murder defendant Veronica Paz, 24, who is accused of luring a high school wrestler to a local lovers' lane, where he was shot and then set afire by her sometime boyfriend.
Diego Armando Gonzalez-Sanchez, 17, an El Modena High School wrestling team captain, was expecting a romantic rendezvous with Paz when she drove him to a deserted hilltop above Orange about midnight in November 2003. But Paz and Brandan Dante Perry had already plotted to kill Gonzalez-Sanchez, prosecutors said.
In opening statements, both sides agreed that Paz lied to sheriff's deputies when they questioned her after the crime. But defense lawyers say that although Paz may be guilty of helping Perry cover up the crime, she didn't conspire with him to kill the teenager. Perry, defense lawyers said, was obsessed with Paz and carried out the murder himself.
Perry "hated to see her with other men. It drove him crazy," said Associate Defender William G. Kelley of the county public defender's office. "Brandan Perry's thing is 'If I can't have her, nobody's going to have her.' He's going to make sure she goes down with him."
Perry, 22, pleaded guilty in March to killing Gonzalez-Sanchez. He agreed to testify against Paz in exchange for a sentence of 25 years to life in prison.
The day got off to a dramatic start even before opening arguments when the defense asked for a mistrial, saying it was never given 16 letters Paz had sent to the confessed killer after the murder.
Judge James A. Stotler called for a 90-minute recess to give the defense time to review the letters, which Perry's mother gave to the prosecution a week ago. The defense was also given a binder filled with about 150 pages of love letters Paz wrote to Perry sometime before the homicide.
Kelley argued that the letters written after the homicide undercut his defense strategy. But Stotler disagreed after reviewing the letters in chambers, saying they contained no new revelations about Paz and Perry's romantic relationship or the crime.
"It's a bunch of love letters back and forth," he said in denying the mistrial.
Prosecutors said the killing was the result of a love triangle in which Paz allegedly played the role of murderous femme fatale. Their fascination with Paz had spawned a rivalry between Perry and Gonzalez-Sanchez.
The two had exchanged harsh words at a party three months before the killing, when Perry saw Paz and Gonzalez-Sanchez together. The wrestler, a Latino, allegedly hurled racial slurs while one of his friends pulled a gun on Perry, who is black.
Afterward, prosecutors said, Perry decided to get even and enlisted Paz's help; the two hatched an elaborate plan to kill Gonzalez-Sanchez. Perry bought a gun. Paz bought the ammunition, and the two drove to the desert to practice shooting, prosecutors said.
On the night of the crime, Paz met Gonzalez-Sanchez at a street corner in Orange. Paz made sure Gonzalez-Sanchez smoked marijuana so that he would be slow to resist an attack, prosecutors said.
Paz then drove the teenager to a deserted hilltop, where Perry soon arrived and killed him.
Perry shot the teenager twice in the head with a .40-caliber pistol and drove away in a Mercedes-Benz that Paz had given him, investigators have said. Paz twice drove Perry back to the crime scene that night, where he tried to set Gonzalez-Sanchez's body on fire, first with lighter fluid, then with diesel fuel, said Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Steve McGreevy.
Paz, a grocery clerk, and Perry were arrested two days later. Paz's lawyer contends that Perry had a history of stalking her and intimidating men who tried to date her. If anyone planned the killing, it was Perry and his friend Albert Medina III, who pleaded guilty to accessory to murder, her lawyer said. He is awaiting sentencing.
If convicted, Paz faces the possibility of life in prison without parole.