A convicted felon was convicted Thursday of fatally stabbing his ex-girlfriend along Interstate 10 in Whitewater and, four months later, strangling his 82-year-old cellmate at the Smith Correctional Facility in Banning.
A Riverside County Superior Court jury deliberated three days before finding 42-year-old Rigoberto Villanueva of Fontana guilty of two counts of first-degree murder for the killings nearly two years ago of Rosemary Barrasa and Tom Carlin.
Jurors also found true a special circumstance allegation of multiple murders, making Villanueva eligible for capital punishment or life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Riverside County Superior Court Judge Mac Fisher scheduled the penalty phase of the defendant’s trial to begin Monday at the Riverside Hall of Justice.
According to prosecutors, the 6-foot, 2-inch, 300-pound defendant had been in a relationship with Barrasa in the late 1990s, and in the fall of 2015, he persuaded her to join him at his brother’s residence in Salida, in Northern California.
Deputy District Attorney Anthony Orlando said the defendant and Barrasa lived together at the property over the ensuing six months, and during that time, Villanueva became abusive, inflicting injuries to the victim’s arms and legs and cutting away a portion of her hair.
During an argument on April 30, 2016, Villanueva ordered Barrasa to leave the house, and she complied, heading to Fontana to stay with a friend. Orlando wrote in a trial brief that within a week of her departure, Villanueva went searching for the 37-year-old victim and arrived in the Inland Empire on May 7. Several days later, he located Barrasa at her friend’s residence.
“The defendant expressed that Barrasa had his heart, which Barrasa responded to by laughing,” Orlando said. “However, Barrasa seemed happy after talking with the defendant.”
Despite being happy to see him, the victim told friends that she was concerned about Villanueva’s behavior, and at least one witness recalled Barrasa hesitating to get into his car on the night of May 11, 2016, according to the prosecution.
Shortly before 2 a.m. on May 12, Barrasa’s body was located in a sedan that appeared to have crashed on eastbound Interstate 10, near Tipton Road, in Whitewater. She had been stabbed 34 times with a screwdriver, with the wounds patterned like an X across her upper body, according to Orlando.
California Highway Patrol officers encountered Villanueva a quarter-mile west, walking in the freeway center median. When they attempted to question him, the defendant took off running and resisted officers when they caught up to him, prompting them to deploy a Taser to gain control and handcuff him.
Villanueva was immediately jailed and charged with Barrasa’s murder. He was paired with Carlin in Housing Unit 17 at the Smith Correctional Facility.
Other inmates described Villanueva as extremely moody and sometimes physically aggressive, a deep contrast with Carlin, who was “happy-go-lucky” and generally liked by the men in his cell block, according to the prosecution.
One inmate told sheriff’s investigators that in the days leading up to Carlin’s murder, Villanueva had suggested Carlin was a child molester, even though the senior citizen was charged with felonious assault and making criminal threats, not sexual offenses. Villanueva also conveyed to the same inmate that he wanted to “choke” Carlin, according to the prosecution.
On the afternoon of Sept. 17, 2016, Villanueva knotted a bed sheet and used it to strangle his cellmate, trying to make it appear as though he had hung himself while sitting on the bedside commode, prosecutors said.
The defendant called deputies to report a suicide, and correctional deputies attempted to resuscitate Carlin, but it was too late.
Villanueva was charged with the murder and was relocated to a high-security unit at the Robert Presley Jail, where he remains in custody without bail. In April 2017, the defendant led two dozen fellow inmates in a hunger strike to protest their lockdown status and the fact they were not free to call loved ones at specified times. The strike ended uneventfully less than a month later.
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