A 50-year-to-life prison sentence was upheld Tuesday for a man who gunned down one of his Coachella housemates in 2004 and remained a fugitive for nearly a decade before being captured in his native Mexico.
Walter Gastelum, 34, formerly of Tijuana, was convicted and sentenced in 2016 for shooting Manuel Ley at the home they shared with several others in the 53700 block of Van Buren Street. Ley was found dead in the kitchen on April 12, 2004, with shotgun wounds to his abdomen and chest. Prosecutors said the shooting was preceded by an argument in which Gastelum accused Ley of stealing something from his bedroom.
While an appeals court earlier this year upheld Gastelum’s conviction for first-degree murder and a sentence-enhancing allegation for using a firearm, the panel also stated that the lower court had the discretion to strike the firearm enhancement if so inclined, which would wipe 25 years off of Gastelum’s sentence.
Gastelum’s appeal had not been completed by the time Senate Bill 620 went into effect, which allows judges to weigh whether to strike the firearm enhancement, something they previously were precluded from doing.
However, Superior Court Judge Hugh A. Walker Tuesday morning ruled against striking the enhancement, and re-imposed Gastelum’s 50-year-to-life term.
At trial in late 2016, Gastelum’s attorney, Arnold Lieman, alleged that Gastelum may have been defending himself, telling jurors that Ley was armed with a steak knife. He said investigators found the knife in Ley’s waistband and argued that his shotgun wounds showed the shooting occurred at close range — close enough for the knife to be a viable threat to Gastelum.
Deputy District Attorney Jacob Silva countered that self-defense was not a factor and argued Gastelum planned the killing, waiting to kill Ley until all the other occupants of the house left to go to a nearby casino.
Gastelum, who was in the country illegally, fled shortly after Ley’s death, stealing his aunt’s boyfriend’s car, which was found in Tijuana a few days later near his parents’ home.
“He came to this country looking for an opportunity to work, and then two weeks to a month later, is begging his aunt for a car to get back to Mexico,” Silva said.
Gastelum was arrested in June 2013 in Sonora. He unsuccessfully fought extradition, and was returned to the United States in December 2013.