A teenager accused of killing his girlfriend's parents and then driving to stores for party supplies with one of the victims in the back of the vehicle was convicted Wednesday of murder.
Prosecutors argued that Giovanni Gallardo and his girlfriend plotted the October 2011 killings and later planned to throw a Halloween party in the Compton mobile home where the adults had been slain.
The victims' bodies were found in separate, shallow graves. Jose Lara, 51, had been handcuffed and his body covered with a blanket. Gloria Villalta, 58, was bloated from decomposition and her head was wrapped in duct tape.
"The way they treated the bodies afterward showed they had no remorse," Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Eric Siddall said after the verdict.
He noted that Gallardo, then 16, told sheriff's detectives that he searched for his girlfriend's iTouch music player after strangling Villalta, who had hidden the device from her daughter.
The verdict comes less than three weeks after a separate jury found Gallardo's girlfriend, Cynthia Alvarez, guilty of the same killings. Both of the teens were tried as adults.
Gallardo's attorney, Deputy Alternate Public Defender Scott T. Johnson, argued to jurors that his client was developmentally disabled with an IQ of 57. He took aim at an apparent confession Gallardo gave, arguing that sheriff's detectives fed the teenager information about the crime that he then recited back.
But the Compton jurors deliberated for about an hour and a half before convicting Gallardo of first-degree murder and finding true special circumstances of lying in wait and multiple murders. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Johnson said he was disappointed with the verdict and planned to appeal. He said a fairer outcome would have been a manslaughter conviction that would allow Gallardo the chance of freedom after 10 or 15 years. He described his client as "very gentle" and said the prosecution ignored that he has the intellectual functioning of a first- or second-grader.
"He's not that person they depicted," Johnson said.
The case against Gallardo, now 18, revolved around the statements he gave to sheriff's homicide detectives in which he said he strangled his girlfriend's mother and beat her stepfather with a baseball bat before stabbing him with a knife.
Gallardo said during the interview that he was angry that Alvarez's mother had called police on him and told her daughter to break up with him.
"She wanted to be with me," he told detectives during the video-recorded interview that was played for the jury. "That's why we did this, 'cause we wanted to be with each other, together."
Gallardo also said that Lara had raped Alvarez and that he was also mad that Alvarez's stepfather showed Gallardo's family disrespect.
"Jose always used to come to my house, threaten me.... I got revenge on him," Gallardo said.
The prosecutor told jurors that Gallardo and his girlfriend drove around in her mother's Jeep after the killings looking for a place to dump the bodies. They dug a grave in Long Beach for the girl's stepfather but the ground was too hard to make the grave large enough to include Villalta's body, Siddall said.
For the next two days, the couple kept her body in the back of the Jeep as they shopped for supplies for a Halloween party, Siddall said. Villalta was eventually buried in a vacant lot in Norwalk.
Siddall and Deputy Dist. Atty. Kristin Trutanich, who prosecuted Alvarez, credited sheriff's deputies and detectives for quickly figuring out that the teenagers were the key to solving the case after receiving a report that the adult couple were missing.
Alvarez testified earlier this month that her mother had repeatedly beaten her and that her stepfather molested her for years and on one occasion sodomized her.
Now 16, she blamed Gallardo for the killings. She said she did not want her parents dead but did not seek help because she was afraid of her boyfriend, whom she described as abusive.
Deputies searched the victims' mobile home and discovered notes Alvarez wrote to her boyfriend shortly before the killings. One of the ungrammatical notes read: "What about if she going to her bed. Can you kill her." Another said, "you do it."
"They had an agenda. They wanted the parents gone," Trutanich said. "The jurors were able to see who these people were."