A Compton jury heard conflicting portraits Tuesday of a 16-year-old girl charged with murdering her mother and stepfather, whose bodies were found more than a year ago buried in separate shallow graves.
Cynthia Alvarez sat quietly wearing a pale-blue cardigan, her hair tied back in a ponytail, as a prosecutor told jurors that the teen had confessed to the October 2011 killings and carried them out with her boyfriend, Giovanni Gallardo.
Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Kristin Trutanich said the young couple lay in wait for the two victims and, following the slayings, planned a Halloween party to take place in the family's mobile home in Compton. The prosecutor said the young couple drove around in her mother's Jeep Cherokee and took parts from her stepfather's truck to sell for cash.
"They planned and executed the murders," Trutanich told jurors. Both Alvarez and Gallardo are charged as adults.
But Alvarez's attorney offered a starkly different view of her client, saying that she played no role in the killings other than to strike her stepfather's legs with a baseball bat at the insistence of her domineering boyfriend.
Deputy Public Defender Carole Telfer described the teen as a longtime victim of sexual, physical and emotional abuse at the hands of those she is accused of killing.
As a little girl, she was molested by her stepfather, Jose Lara, who moved in with her and her mother about a year after her father was deported to Honduras, Telfer said. Alvarez told her older sister about the abuse, but the older girl did not report it or help her younger sister, Telfer said.
Her mother, Gloria Villalta, forced Alvarez to maintain the house, cook and give her insulin, Telfer told jurors. She berated her shy daughter and beat the girl with a studded belt or anything else she could find for such trivial offenses as squealing when she saw a mouse or not cooking properly, the attorney said.
"Mrs. Villalta essentially kept Cynthia as a slave for her personal use," Telfer told jurors.
Child welfare authorities investigated a report that Villalta lit a piece of paper and held it to her daughter's nose, but no action was taken, the lawyer said.
In 2008, the lawyer said, Lara sodomized his stepdaughter in their kitchen while the rest of the family was away.
Telfer said her client was terrified but eventually told her older sister, and the two went to law enforcement. The older girl also told authorities about the prior molestations and reported that Lara had also propositioned her, Telfer said.
Law enforcement officials went to Lara's house to arrest him, but Villalta tipped him off in advance and later ordered Alvarez to recant her allegation, which the girl did, Telfer told the jury.
Alvarez tried unsuccessfully to get help and at times attempted suicide using pills and cutting herself, the attorney said. She also tried to run away and on one occasion was tied up with electrical cords by her mother and stepfather, Telfer said.
About a year before the killings, Alvarez met her boyfriend at Dominguez High School. Gallardo was domineering and ultimately abusive to Alvarez, who suffered from a language processing disorder, Telfer said.
Gallardo, then 16, suggested that they kill her parents, but Alvarez, then 15, would not agree, her lawyer told the jury. On the day of the killings, Gallardo showed up at her home after she had an argument with her mother, Telfer said.
During the violence, Alvarez stayed in the home's living room and was "basically paralyzed," her attorney told the jury. Gallardo told her to use a baseball bat on her stepfather and she did so out of fear of her boyfriend, Telfer said.
Villalta's body was discovered by a jogger on Oct. 15, 2011, in a vacant lot in Norwalk. The 58-year-old victim's legs were tied, her hands bound behind her back, and her head covered with a cloth and wrapped in duct tape, a homicide detective told jurors. The body was in a state of severe decomposition, sheriff's homicide Det. Gary Sloan testified.
The body of Lara, 51, was found in a lot near Jordan High School in Long Beach.
Alvarez and Gallardo, who is now 17, face sentences of life in prison if convicted of murder. Gallardo is expected to face trial in the next few weeks.