A death sentence was imposed Friday on a convicted felon who stabbed his ex-girlfriend to death along Interstate 10 in Whitewater and, four months later, strangled his 82-year-old cellmate at the Smith Correctional Facility in Banning.
In July, a Riverside jury unanimously recommended capital punishment for 43-year-old Rigoberto Villanueva of Fontana for the 2016 killings of Rosemary Barrasa, 37, and Tom Carlin.
Riverside County Superior Court Judge Mac Fisher affirmed the panel’s findings, rejecting a defense motion for a sentence modification.
In June, Villanueva was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder, and jurors found true a special-circumstance allegation of taking multiple lives, making the defendant eligible for the death penalty.
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, Northern California.
Deputy District Attorney Anthony Orlando said the defendant and Barrasa lived together at the property for the ensuing six months, during which time, Villanueva became abusive, inflicting injuries to the victim’s arms and legs and cutting away some of her hair.
Barrasa left the house at the end of April 2016, heading to Fontana to stay with a friend. Within a week of her leaving, Villanueva went searching for the 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 she was concerned about Villanueva’s behavior, and at least one witness recalled her hesitating to get into his car on the night of May 11, 2016, according to the prosecutor.
Shortly before 2 a.m. the next day, her body was found in Villanueva’s sedan, which appeared to have crashed on eastbound Interstate 10, near Tipton Road, in Whitewater. She had been stabbed 34 times with a screwdriver, the wounds patterned in the shape of an ”X” across her upper body, according to Orlando.
California Highway Patrol officers encountered Villanueva a quarter-mile west of the scene, walking in the freeway center median. When they attempted to question him, he took off running and resisted officers when they caught up to him, prompting them to deploy a Taser to gain control and handcuff him.
He 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 his cellmate was a child molester, even though the elder man 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.
The prosecutor said that on the afternoon of Sept. 17, 2016, Villanueva knotted a bed sheet and used it to strangle Carlin, trying to make it appear as though he had hung himself while sitting on the bedside commode.
Villanueva was charged with the murder and was relocated to a high-security unit at the Riverside jail.
Court records did not specify his prior convictions.
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