A Denver man previously sentenced to 40 years to life for fatally shooting a woman during a drug-fueled night inside an Indio motel room was resentenced to 15 years to life Friday, after a judge struck a gun use enhancement that added 25 years to the sentence.
Aaron Drayer, 22, was convicted of second-degree murder in March for the Jan. 15, 2017, death of 32-year-old Liliana Yanez at the Royal Plaza Inn at 82347 Highway 111.
Deputy District Attorney Manny Bustamante told jurors that after a night spent inside a room at the motel using drugs with Yanez and several of her acquaintances, Drayer and a friend of his left the inn about 2 a.m., but went back to retrieve a “book safe” — a hollowed-out dictionary in which Drayer transported drugs.
Bustamante said that upon finding the book safe, Drayer suspected that someone had tampered with it and tried to steal from him. He then “held everyone in the room at gunpoint,” but Yanez “didn’t take him seriously,” remained on her cell phone and was unperturbed by Drayer brandishing a gun, the prosecutor said.
“Liliana Yanez simply did not show him the respect he felt he deserved,” said Bustamante, who told the jury that Yanez had been making Drayer paranoid and suspicious throughout the night when she wouldn’t get off her phone.
Drayer then trained his gun on her, to which her last words were “What are you going to” prior to being shot once in the chest. She died at the scene.
Last month, Drayer was sentenced to a mandatory 15 years to life on the murder count and 25 years to life for a gun use enhancement that Riverside County Superior Court Judge Otis Sterling could have stricken but opted to impose due to what he said was a lack of truthfulness on Drayer’s part regarding how the shooting occurred.
However, Sterling decided to strike the enhancement on Friday, ruling that a number of factors, including the defendant’s age, lack of criminal history, and the amount of time jurors spent deliberating over the enhancement, led him to strike the enhancement and resentence Drayer to a 15-year-to-life term.
Drayer’s attorney, James Silva, maintained during the trial that his client shot Yanez in self-defense after she called people to come to the hotel and possibly kill Drayer and his friend, then tried to attack him. Silva said Yanez was being “belligerent” and that contrary to the prosecution’s claims, she was the one accusing Drayer of disrespect, not the other way around.
However, text messages recovered from Drayer’s cell phone indicated that he was considering robbing Yanez and her friends when first arriving at the hotel, but later changed his mind.
Silva said Drayer brought a gun because he didn’t feel comfortable with some of the people there, but the weapon was strictly for protection.
“He had no motive at that time to kill anybody. He was there to have fun,” Silva said.
The attorney said that after hearing Yanez threatening to have people kill him, Drayer brandished the gun. As one of Yanez’s cohorts snuck up behind him, Yanez lunged across a bed at him, causing him to shoot her, Silva said.
Drayer left in an SUV with Colorado plates, which belonged to a family friend. San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies caught up with the SUV owner, who said she lent Drayer the vehicle several days earlier and that he had the SUV on the night of Jan. 14.
Drayer, who witnesses said relocated to the Morongo Basin area about three months before the shooting, was found later that day hiding inside a bathroom in the woman’s Joshua Tree home and was arrested after trying to flee through a window.
The locked “book safe” was found by officers inside the hotel room, Bustamante said. Substances consistent with methamphetamine and cocaine were found inside the book safe, along with boxes of ammunition. More ammunition and drugs were found inside the SUV.