Two men were convicted Thursday of first-degree murder for the death of an Iraq War veteran whose body was discovered more than a decade ago in the trunk of his smoldering car in the concrete riverbed of the Los Angeles River in South Gate.
The downtown Los Angeles jury deliberated less than three hours before finding Anthony Silvas, 38, and Juan Vallejo, 43, guilty of the killing of Jesse Aguilar, 24, who had served in the U.S. Army.
The six-man, six-woman panel acquitted Silvas and Vallejo of a torture charge.
“Our system can work,” the victim’s mother said outside court after the verdict.
Nancy Aguilar, sporting a bracelet bearing the words “Justice for Jesse,” said she had kept in contact with Los Angeles County sheriff’s detectives to make sure her son’s death was not forgotten.
Silvas and Vallejo were arrested nearly a decade after the killing.
Deputy District Attorney Kenneth Von Helmolt told jurors that Aguilar had been struck in the head, wrapped in plastic, cloth and rope and had his feet bound together with wire. His body was found in a fetal position in the trunk of his blue Toyota Corolla, which was found smoldering on the concrete riverbed below the Long Beach (710) Freeway on the evening of Oct. 26, 2006.
“It’s a horror scene,” the prosecutor told the panel.
Silvas’ sister told police that she spoke to Aguilar — whom she said had been selling methamphetamine with her brother — the evening before he was found dead, and the victim told her he was going to meet her brother that night, Von Helmolt told jurors. Phone records showed the victim unsuccessfully trying to call Silvas three times, Silvas calling the land line to Vallejo’s residence and Silvas then calling the victim — the last phone call he received, according to the prosecutor.
The motive for the killing is unclear, but a former brother-in-law of Silvas testified that Silvas told him shortly before the murder that he was extremely upset that Aguilar had visited Silvas’ girlfriend, according to the prosecutor.
Von Helmolt told jurors that Silvas told his former brother-in-law that the “white fool got handled” and was “cracked,” and admitted to his then-girlfriend in 2007 that he had killed Aguilar and said the victim was alive while being set on fire.
Defense attorneys had urged jurors to acquit Silvas and Vallejo of both charges, with Silvas’ attorney arguing that the victim’s body had been set on fire after he was already dead.
“The question is whether they proved a murder. The torture (charge) is absolutely absurd,” Silvas’ lawyer, Alan Kessler, told jurors.
Silvas’ attorney questioned the credibility of the account of his client’s former girlfriend, telling jurors that she had given different versions of what had happened.
Vallejo’s attorney, Patrick Thomason, said there was no evidence that his client was a direct perpetrator or aided and abetted in the killing, calling it a “failure of proof” by the prosecution.
The defense lawyer said DNA evidence linking Vallejo to a cigarette butt found in the victim’s car was “degraded” and “only a partial profile.” He also noted that a criminalist could not say when the cigarette was left in the Toyota, telling jurors, “I ask, `Can you trust the DNA evidence?”’
Silvas and Vallejo are due back in court for sentencing April 24, when they are each facing state prison terms of 25 years to life.