Three men convicted of the 2013 gang-related killing of a former Garfield High School football player, who was gunned in East Los Angeles during a college-break visit home to see family and friends, were each sentenced Monday to more than 100 years to life in prison.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Stephen A. Marcus called the murder of 21-year-old Gabriel Soto a crime of “great violence” and said the victim, who was not the intended target of the shooters, was particularly vulnerable as an unarmed man with no gang connections who was just visiting a friend.
The murder was “driven by a gang mentality,” Marcus said.
“You will have the rest of your life to think about your poor judgment,” he told Los Angeles residents Jonathon Joseph Gonzalez, 30, Roque Solis, 32, and Anthony Aaron Gabriel, 27.
A downtown Los Angeles jury deliberated about two days in January before finding the trio guilty of first-degree murder for Soto’s May 25, 2013, death.
Jurors also convicted the three men of one count of attempted murder involving the intended victim, who was struck in the leg, and four counts of assault with a firearm, along with finding true allegations that Gonzalez and Solis personally and intentionally discharged a firearm during the commission of the murder and attempted murder and that the crimes were committed for the benefit of a criminal street gang.
Marcus sentenced Gonzalez, who was also convicted of one count of possession of a firearm by a felon, to a total of 173 years to life in prison. Solis, the other shooter, had no prior convictions and was sentenced to 129 years to life. Gabriel, the getaway driver, was sentenced to 109 years to life.
“They are long sentences because they should be,” the judge told a courtroom filled with Soto’s family and friends, as well as those of at least some of the defendants. “It was only by luck that they did not kill more people in that garage.”
Deputy District Attorney Hilary Williams said Gonzalez was still on probation for a 2011 robbery conviction when he murdered Soto and said she believed he got less than a year of jail time in the earlier case because he “used his mother’s influence to influence the witnesses in that case.”
Marcus denied a motion for a new trial made by Solis’ attorney. Lawyers representing the other defendants said they planned to or had already filed appeals in the case.
Deputy District Attorney Hilary Williams argued before sentencing that Gabriel orchestrated the shooting, even though he wasn’t one of the two shooters. He called Solis and Gonzalez and helped get them guns and stayed away from the actual scene of the crime because of his status in the gang, the prosecutor said.
“In a gang context, I think he is as culpable, if not more culpable,” Williams said.
The judge agreed.
“Had he not been involved in this, it never would have taken place,” Marcus said of Gabriel.
As for the victim, “Gabriel Soto was just visiting a friend that day,” the judge said. “He didn’t have any involvement in this crazy world of gangs.”
The attempted murder victim had testified at a hearing involving a gang member charged in an earlier case.
Defense attorneys argued at trial that without forensic evidence or eyewitnesses, their clients could not be proven guilty of murder.
Soto — who was a month shy of his 22nd birthday — was gunned down while attending a party with some former teammates inside an open garage in the 600 block of South McDonnell Avenue.
He had returned to California to visit family while on a break from Lincoln University in Missouri, which he was attending on a football scholarship. He was the first in his family to graduate from high school, according to his sister.
A redshirt player on Lincoln University’s football roster the previous season, Soto was going to be a defensive back for the upcoming season and was studying engineering, according to the university.
Soto’s mother, who accepted an honorary degree from the school after her son’s death, gave an emotional statement to the court.
“Three men who didn’t know him, who didn’t care about anything” took her son’s life, Sylvia Soto said, speaking through a Spanish-language interpreter. “They sentenced me to a life of pain and desperation.”
Nearly a dozen people in the courtroom wore T-shirts with photos of Soto, some with his jersey number 33 on the back under the words, “Forever in our hearts.” Some showed up every day of the trial, according to the judge.
His older sister, Vanessa Cornejo, tried to put into words “just how special Gabriel was to us … how motivated and determined” to make a better life for himself.
He was “the guy on the football team who always rallied the team” and inspired other students to stay in school, she said.
“I desperately wanted to know what my brother’s last words were,” Cornejo said, but paramedics, deputies and others told her Soto had been quiet. However, the last thing he said when he saw her last was, “I love you, sis …,”’ she said. “He never left you without saying I love you or giving you a great big hug.”
Another sister, Isabelle Avila, said Soto was a father figure to her children and taught her son to play football.
“My son says to me now that he’s going to live my brother’s dream … do everything his Uncle Bobo showed him,” Avila said, choking up. “We need justice.”