(pool photo by Mamta
Relief was the expression found on the faces of former Arivaca resident Albert Robert Gaxiola and members of his defense team on Friday afternoon as a Pima County Superior Court jury sentenced him to life in prison for the May 30, 2009, shooting death of Arivaca resident Raul “Junior” Flores. The jury was unable to reach a decision regarding the appropriate punishment in the death of 9-year-old Brisenia Flores.
The jury of seven males and five females took a little over 11 hours before returning their verdicts to a surprised audience of onlookers in the courtroom of Judge John S. Leonardo. “I’m relieved,” said defense counsel Steven D. West, immediately following the reading of the verdict.
West said Gaxiola had similar feelings. “I think he was greatly relieved,” West said.
West was unable to pinpoint what evidence the defense had presented that led the jury to the verdict of life in prison. “I’m sure the family emotion, I would think, had some effect on them,” he said, referring to the numerous members of Gaxiola’s family who testified during the sentencing phase of the trial. “They sincerely appeared like they cared about Albert greatly.”
Obviously, West and his client were prepared for a death sentence. “I think we all did. I wasn’t inside Albert’s head, but I’m sure that he was,” he said.
Gaxiola’s sister, Sonia Muniz who testified during the penalty phase of the trial was at home in California when she heard news if the verdict. “As we understand it right now, we’re happy with the outcome,” she said. “This isn’t the end of the world and there’s still more to come. We haven’t exhaled completely.”
Muniz agreed with west that it was Gaxiola’s family that made a difference in the outcome. “During the mitigation phase we were able to paint his character and the jury was able to see that,” she said.
West admitted he is not an expert when guessing what juries will do, but the verdict they returned with the hung jury of the murder conviction involving Brisenia was surprising. “I would have never guessed the combination of things,” he said.
|Raul and Brisenia|
On July 1, Gaxiola, 44, was found guilty on two counts of first-degree murder in the shooting deaths of Flores and his daughter, as well as six other charges including attempted first-degree murder in connection with the wounding of surviving victim Gina Gonzalez. Asked if she had any thoughts on the verdict and a lack of a verdict Gonzalez declined. “No, I’m not interested,” she said, as she quickly left the courtroom.
Gonzalez, however, will be talking with Deputy County Attorneys Rick Unklesbay and Kellie Johnson in the near future to provide input regarding the jury’s inability to decide the penalty for the murder of her daughter, Brisenia. “We’re going to talk to her,” Unklesbay said.
The prosecutors will also consult colleagues regarding whether or not to withdraw their request for the death penalty. “We do a panel on all murder cases,” Unklesbay explained. “We’ll talk to everybody concerned and make a decision.”
West was unwilling to speculate as to how the prosecution will proceed. “That’s strictly up to them and I’d rather not comment,” he said.
A hearing on whether the death request will be withdrawn on the count involving the murder of Brisenia is set for July 29 at 10 a.m. If the death request is withdrawn then Leonardo will have the option of sentencing Gaxiola to natural life or whether he will have an opportunity to apply for a parole hearing after he has served 35 calendar years in prison. The 35-year threshold applies in Brisenia’s case because she was younger than 15-years-old.
A sentencing hearing has been set for Aug. 15 at 10:30 a.m. on the other six counts for which Gaxiola was convicted, as well as the murder count for which he will receive life in prison. It is up to Leonardo to determine if Gaxiola will be sentenced to natural life or whether he will have an opportunity to apply for a parole hearing after he has served 25 calendar years in prison.
No new neighbors
Already on death row in this case is co-defendant Shawna Forde, 43, the founder of the splinter group Minuteman American Defense. Testimony from prosecution witnesses in her trial earlier this year painted Forde as a wannabe black ops leader who proposed to finance her Blackwater-type operations by raiding suspected drug cartel operations in and around Arivaca in southern Arizona. Testimony showed that Forde intended to take the drugs, guns and money found during those raids to finance her continuing operations. Flores was their first target. Besides two death sentences, Forde was sentenced to 65 years in prison on the six other counts.
Also on death row in this case is co-defendant Jason Eugene Bush, 34, director of field operations for Minuteman American Defense, who during a post-arrest interview told detectives that it was his understanding that no one at the Flores home would be harmed. Bush also told detectives that he and Forde had entered the Flores home first because Gaxiola was concerned that he would be recognized. And, Bush told detectives that he was told their mission was to rip off marijuana and money owned by Raul Flores. Besides the two death sentences, Bush was given and additional 78 years in prison regarding the six other counts.
Testimony in this trial showed that Gaxiola, a longtime drug smuggler in the Arivaca area, was an intelligence resource for Forde and Bush who were seeking drugs and money to fund her minuteman operations and to provide living expenses. At the same time, the death of Flores eliminated competition in local drug smuggling activities for Gaxiola and his longtime business partner, Oin Oakstar. In exchange for a favorable plea agreement, Oakstar testified for the prosecution in all three trials.
Of the three defendants, Gaxiola was the only one that chose to make a statement either through testimony or in the form of allocution. The statement by Gaxiola was unsworn and not subject to cross-examination. “Flores Family. Gonzalez Family. There’s nothing that I can do or say that can relieve the pain and suffering from the loss of a loving husband or the loss of a precious daughter. All I can say is that I am truly sorry.”