A man convicted of repeatedly stabbing a fellow passenger in the head with a knife in a random attack aboard a Montebello Public Transit bus was sentenced Wednesday to 26 years to life in state prison.
Manuel Ortiz Jr. of Montebello, 29, was initially charged with attempted murder and aggravated mayhem, but he was subsequently charged with and convicted of first-degree murder after 22-year-old Austin Angelo Zavala died about two months after he was attacked on April 9, 2018.
Authorities did not determine a motive for the attack.
“It’s rare to see such a crime as this,” Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Leslie A. Swain said, calling what had happened “heart-breaking.”
One of the victim’s aunts, Aracelli Wells, told the judge that her nephew was “strong and tall” but still ambushed on a public bus.
“A simple act of taking public transportation has now become a life or death situation,” she said.
Another of his aunts, Patricia Zavala, said she was crushed when she received the call informing her what had happened to her nephew, went daily to see him in the hospital and will “never have the chance to see him flourish.”
In the prosecution’s closing argument, Deputy District Attorney Marlene Martinez called the attack unprovoked and told jurors that Zavala “had no idea what was coming to him.”
Zavala was talking on his cell phone when Ortiz walked up, stabbed him in the head, pulled the knife out and then did the same thing at least three more times, the prosecutor said.
“Austin Zavala was sitting on a bus on his way to college … when the human being at the end of this table committed this cowardly act,” Martinez told the jury. “He left Austin Zavala in a hospital for two months suffering.”
The prosecutor didn’t offer a theory for why Ortiz attacked an apparent stranger shortly after boarding at an East Los Angeles stop at Whittier Boulevard and Gerhart Avenue.
“We don’t have to prove motive,” the prosecutor said. “He could very well have a motive in his head and we just don’t know it.”
When Ortiz fled, he pulled the knife out of his victim’s head, but left behind a blue bag that contained fingerprints and DNA evidence, according to Martinez. She said “every little piece of evidence” in the bag pointed to the defendant’s guilt, while DNA, fingerprints and Ortiz’ cell phone put him at the crime scene.
Defense attorney Kimberly Greene argued the prosecution case was built on circumstantial evidence not strong enough to overcome reasonable doubt. No murder weapon was offered at trial and the DNA came from a Gatorade bottle that could have been recycled and picked up by anyone, Greene said.
“They want to pick and choose and cherry pick” the evidence, Greene told jurors. “It is not your job just to take everything at face value.”
Jurors saw video of the attack during the trial, but Greene said the killer shown there wasn’t her client, but someone physically similar.
A physical resemblance shouldn’t be enough to convict a man, she told the panel.
Only three witnesses on the bus testified, out of at least a dozen people visible on the video, and those witnesses never saw the attacker head-on, according to the defense attorney.
“You should have doubts and if you have doubts, you must vote not guilty,” Greene told jurors.
Ortiz — who admitted that he had a 2015 conviction for unlawful taking or driving of a vehicle — was arrested three days after the stabbing and has remained behind bars since then.
Jurors deliberated for just under an hour before convicting him Sept. 9 of first-degree murder and finding true a knife use allegation.
The judge agreed to the defense attorney’s request to recommend that Ortiz be housed at a state prison facility that offers mental health services.
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