With two witnesses looking on, a Utah man poured gasoline on his mother’s head outside an Indio furniture store, set her on fire with a lighter then surrendered and confessed, a prosecutor told jurors Wednesday, but the defendant denied the allegations, claiming he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Israel Ramirez Guardado, 38, of Salt Lake City, is charged with first-degree murder, aggravated mayhem and torture for allegedly lighting his mother on fire at her workplace around 5:50 a.m. Jan. 26, 2018. The murder charge includes a special circumstance allegation of inflicting torture in the commission of a murder, opening him to a possible death sentence if he is convicted.
During opening statements of Guardado’s trial, Deputy District Attorney Joshua Hill said that after the defendant set fire to his mother — 61-year-old Francisca Ramirez of North Shore — he went to the Indio jail to surrender, telling an employee, “I came to turn myself in. I just set a woman on fire.”
Hill said Guardado attacked his mother in the parking lot of the Mathis Brothers furniture store, causing second- and third-degree burns on almost half her body.
According to the prosecutor, two of Ramirez’s co-workers used jackets and sweaters to smother the flames. The woman initially survived, but she developed acute respiratory distress syndrome associated with her burns, leading to her death almost a month later, Hill said.
While in the hospital, she identified her son as her attacker, according to police.
During his opening remarks, Guardado, who is acting as his own attorney, denied the prosecutor’s allegations, saying he was “caught up” in the crime because he was caught in the wrong place at the time. He said the investigating officers from the Indio Police Department were “filled with hate and bloodlust” against him.
“They closed in on me,” he said.
Despite proclaiming his innocence, he ended his opening statement by telling jurors he would be content with whatever decision they ultimately make.
“I’m ready to accept whatever you guys give me,” he said. “My hope is not in this life.”
Hill said the two co-workers who helped extinguish the fire will testify they heard the defendant and his mother having a loud argument, then saw Guardado dump gasoline out of a red plastic container onto his mother’s head. He said they will describe seeing the liquid dripping down the woman’s body and then watching the defendant pull out a lighter and set her ablaze.
Prosecutors contend Guardado followed his mother to her workplace that morning, planning to set her fire over a disagreement they were having over custody of his oldest daughter. After doing so, he drove to the Indio jail to surrender, Hill said.
As testimony unfolded in the trial Wednesday, Indio police Officer Ryan Kitchens described seeing Ramirez after the fire that morning at the furniture store.
“She started walking over to my car and appeared to be burned very badly,” he said. “There was smoke emanating from her body.”
Jurors were shown video from the officer’s body-worn camera. The footage showed a woman walking toward the officer, speaking in Spanish in the darkness of the morning, with her co-workers behind her translating.
Ramirez was taken JFK Medical Center in Indio, but she was later moved to the burn unit at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton. Prosecutors said doctors attempted skin grafts and other procedures, but they ultimately proved unsuccessful. Ramirez’s organs began to fail and she became unable to absorb oxygen from a ventilator. She was taken off life support and died Feb. 25, prosecutors said.
During the trial, prosecutors are expected to show jurors various Facebook posts Guardado made within a same month of the fiery attack on his mother.
“Times up… I’m coming for you,” the defendant wrote on Jan. 1, 2018, an apparent threat prosecutors allege was directed at the victim.
On Jan. 19, 2018, he wrote, “I’m back in Kali and I’m ready to do whatever it takes to clear my… keep watching this won’t go past Wednesday, just ask my mom,” according to court documents.
If jurors convict Guardado of murder and the special circumstance allegation, the trial will move to a penalty phase, in which the jury will be tasked with recommending either death or life imprisonment without parole.
Guardado, who is being held without bail at the Indio Jail, has no documented prior felony convictions in Riverside County.
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