INDIO (CNS) – As the penalty phase continued Tuesday for a Cathedral City man convicted of fatally gunning down four people in Palm Springs more than four years ago, his ex-partner testified about physical and mental abuse she allegedly endured from him when she was 14 years old.
Jose Vladimir Larin-Garcia was convicted of four counts of first- degree murder for the Feb. 3, 2019, deaths of Jacob Montgomery, 19; Juan Duarte Raya, 18; Yuliana Garcia, 17; and Carlos Campos Rivera, 25. Jurors reached a unanimous guilty verdict in less than one hour and also found true a special- circumstance allegation of multiple murders and sentence-enhancing gun and great bodily injury allegations.
Jurors in his first trial deliberated for seven days but were unable to reach a verdict in March of last year. A new jury was sworn in for the retrial on Sept. 26, 2022.
The woman, identified only by her initials “H.M.,” testified Tuesday morning in the penalty phase — in which jurors will recommend whether Larin-Garcia should be sentenced to death or life in prison without the possibility of parole — that she met the defendant in 2016 and they had an unofficial relationship for about seven months before he moved to Florida.
She said the defendant was sweet the first few weeks but he started getting more aggressive toward her with his words and eventually began to push, punch and at some point also put a gun to her head.
“There was one time he got really upset with me and he had put a gun to my head. I was 14,” H.M. said. “I had put on one of his clothing, it was a ski mask, I put it on… he seen the ski mask on me, he got really mad and I thought he was going to hit me again and so when I tried to run to the restroom he ran after me and that’s when he pulled out the gun and told me to not ever do that again.”
She said that she was too scared to tell anyone about the progressing aggression, but stopped speaking with him after he moved to Florida in 2017. H.M. alleges that he sent people to her home to beat her up when he found out she was hanging out with a new guy.
“I don’t wish death upon anybody, I always try to see the good in people,” said H.M., who later added that she was not sure whether it would impact her if he were to be sentenced to death. “I believe people make choices and soon enough they will get what they deserve.”
During earlier testimony in the penalty phase Thursday morning, Rivera’s mother Martha Sakowicz explained through tears about how great her relationship was with her youngest son, how he would text her everyday, how he loved to cook steak, how he wanted to go to school to become a physical therapist and about how he always helped whoever he could.
“One thing about Carlos is he was always, always trying to help people. … One time, I came home and he was making hot dogs, a bunch of hot dogs,” Sakowicz said. “And I asked him, `What’re you doing?’… He said, `This is for the homeless mom. They have nothing to eat, you should see them.’ … He was always looking out for people at the park.”
Sakowicz said that the last time she spoke to her son was the night before he died; that it was the last night he told her he loved her and that after he was gone, it was the hardest thing for her — she developed insomnia, anxiety and depression.
“As a grandma, it kills me to see my granddaughter without a father. It kills me to see them run to the ashes and say, `Daddy, daddy,”‘ she said. “My life is never ever gonna be the same, you know. I feel like half of my brain is missing.”
Theresa Acosta, Rivera’s girlfriend, went to the stand next and said that she and the victim met through mutual friends in 2017, became inseparable, eventually fell in love and moved in together in 2018. Their daughter was born five months after he was killed.
“It’s been hard, but I have her. I’m able to look at her and just see him in her,” Acosta said. “It makes me happy that I’m able to still keep him alive.”
During opening statements in the penalty phase Wednesday morning, Deputy District Attorney Samantha Paixao asked jurors to consider the significance of the lives lost.
“You’re going to be making a personal decision,” Paixao told jurors, adding that she will ask them again at the end of the penalty phase to consider that “the only just verdict, the only just imposition of a sentence for Jose Vladimir Larin-Garcia, for what he did, for taking Yuliana Garcia, for taking Carlos Campos Rivera, Jacob Montgomery, and Juan Duarte Raya, is the greater punishment; the punishment of death.”
Larin-Garcia’s defense attorney, John Dolan, told jurors he was shocked at the unanimous decision to convict the defendant of four murders, but asked jurors to again consider the evidence, saying that on the night of the fatal shootings, Larin-Garcia was “a 19-year-old kid” and intoxicated, and that the defendant also has a family who will be affected by the decision.
“It’s a sad set of circumstances,” Dolan said. “I ask you that you be very careful in your decision. We don’t want five families, with the addition of Mr. Larin-Garcia’s family, to suffer the same circumstances. Please consider the things I’ve discussed with you.”
Larin-Garcia was sitting in a stopped car with Montgomery, Raya and Garcia on the night of the killings, and first fatally shot Rivera, who was leaning against the stopped vehicle, according to prosecutors. The driver sped away after that shooting, but Larin-Garcia — who was in the back seat — then fatally shot the trio inside the vehicle to eliminate witnesses and jumped from the moving car before it crashed into a parked Jeep at Sunny Dunes and El Placer roads, officials said.
Montgomery, Raya and Garcia were found in a green Toyota Corolla that crashed at Sunny Dunes and El Placer roads around 11:40 p.m. the night of the killings, while Rivera was found on a street about a half-mile away, according to prosecutors.
Dolan unsuccessfully tried to point blame for the killing on then-15- year-old John Olvera, saying he made incriminating statements and social media posts that amounted to a confession to the killings, and created a scene for the jury in which Olvera was in the middle seat of the car shooting the others, and that Larin-Garcia jumped from the vehicle when the killings began.
Olvera testified in both of Larin-Garcia’s trials, denying culpability in the case, saying his comments amounted to empty boasting or were simply lyrics by rapper Young Boy.
Paixao argued that there was no evidence to suggest a fifth person was in the vehicle, pointing to eyewitness testimony of only four people being present and said she doesn’t know why Olvera would get on social media and falsely confess to the killings, but said he had done it before when he lied and took credit for a murder at Zelda’s nightclub and when he lied about being in custody “to impress chicks.”
Paixao insisted that Larin-Garcia — not Olvera — was in the car the night of the killings, and said the defendant was clearly attempting to flee or hide on three occasions following the shootings. She also said the victims were deliberately killed, supporting allegations that the defendant was lying in wait, acted with intent to kill, with deliberation and with premeditation.
“Some people are just bad,” Paixao told jurors. “Some people just want to kill, and when you kill four people within a matter of minutes, you like to kill.”
Paixao said that someone who pulls a trigger and shoots each victim two times knows what they’re doing and is acting with intent to kill. Photos were then shown to jurors of each victim from when their injuries were evaluated by an expert as Paixao listed how each victim was fatally injured.
“We know he took (Montgomery) by surprise because look at where Jacob was shot (twice on the right side of his face.). Look how he was murdered,” Paixao said. “Sitting in the car next to Vladimir Larin-Garcia. There is no other way that this execution happens unless he had a secret plan, then he took them by surprise.”
According to Paixao, blood on Larin-Garcia’s shoes and jacket had the DNA of the victims on it, placing him inside the vehicle at the time of the murders. She further argued that bullet casings at the crime scene matched those that were found in the defendant’s bedroom and vehicle, further attaching him to the events.
Dolan asserted that the blood spatter identified on Larin-Garcia’s clothing did not prove murder, and there was no search for a gun the prosecution claims he used in the crime, only bullet casings.
Larin-Garcia was found by officers hiding under a pickup just blocks from the scene of the Corolla crash. He was taken to Desert Regional Medical Center for treatment of minor injuries but was not arrested.
Larin-Garcia left the hospital after being questioned by Palm Springs police, going to a friend’s house. Det. Steve Grissom testified that the friend went to his mother’s home to retrieve fresh clothing and an ID card for the defendant.
Later in the day, the friend also bought bandages for Larin-Garcia, along with a Greyhound bus ticket to Florida under the name “Joseph Browning,” Grissom testified.
At some point that day, Larin-Garcia shaved his head to change his appearance, then the friend drove him to the bus station in Indio, where Larin- Garcia was arrested, Grissom testified.
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