As the penalty phase of trial continued for a Cathedral City man who gunned down four people in Palm Springs more than four years ago, the mother of one of the victims testified Tuesday about the pain she felt losing a second son and reminisced on their lives growing up.
Juan Duarte Raya, 18, was one of four people killed by Jose Vladimir Larin-Garcia, 23, on Feb. 3, 2019. Also killed that day were Jacob Montgomery, 19; Yuliana Garcia, 17; and Carlos Campos Rivera, 25. Larin-Garcia was convicted of murder on Feb. 6, and jurors found true a special-circumstance allegation of multiple murders and sentence-enhancing gun and great bodily injury allegations.
The same jury is now being asked to recommend whether Larin-Garcia should be sentenced to death or life in prison without parole.
Raya’s mother, Juana Raya, testified Tuesday in the penalty phase that she lost her oldest son, Roberto Raya, to brain cancer about four years before Juan was killed.
“It’s funny, when they were little … I used to always dress them the same because Juan always wanted what Roberto had. … So I always bought the same clothes, same shoes, and that way there was no fighting,” Juana Raya said. “And now, when I do their graves, because I have that in my head still. … I just do the same flowers.”
She said that on Feb. 3. 2019, the day before going to the cemetery to celebrate Roberto’s birthday, she was surprised to see Juan home earlier than usual, before 11 p.m. He popped in to grab his charger and a burrito from his dad before heading out with his long-time friends, Montgomery and Garcia. Raya told him, “Take care,” and that was the last time she saw him.
“It was different. I see him one night walking out of the house, then I don’t see him at all,” Raya said. “I was mad at the person that did it. … That’s not fair, the person destroyed so many lives and he destroyed me again.”
Raya said she texted and called Juan multiple times before they went to the cemetery the next day, but that on the way there someone called with the news about Juan’s death.
“He didn’t deserve that. None of them deserved what happened to them,” she said. “He didn’t even have a chance to fight back.”
Larin-Garcia’s ex-partner, identified only by her initials “H.M.,” also testified Tuesday that she met the defendant in 2016 and they had an unofficial relationship for about seven months before he moved to Florida.
She said the defendant was sweet the first few weeks but he started getting more aggressive toward her with his words and eventually began to push, punch and at some point also put a gun to her head.
“There was one time he got really upset with me and he had put a gun to my head. I was 14,” H.M. said. “I had put on one of his clothing, it was a ski mask, I put it on. … He seen the ski mask on me, he got really mad and I thought he was going to hit me again and so when I tried to run to the restroom he ran after me and that’s when he pulled out the gun and told me to not ever do that again.”
During earlier testimony in the penalty phase, Rivera’s mother Martha Sakowicz explained through tears about how great her relationship was with her youngest son, how he would text her everyday, how he loved to cook steak, how he wanted to go to school to become a physical therapist and about how he always helped whoever he could.
Sakowicz said the last time she spoke to her son was the night before he died; that it was the last night he told her he loved her and that after he was gone, it was the hardest thing for her — she developed insomnia, anxiety and depression.
“As a grandma, it kills me to see my granddaughter without a father. It kills me to see them run to the ashes and say, `Daddy, daddy,”’ she said. “My life is never ever gonna be the same, you know. I feel like half of my brain is missing.”
During opening statements in the penalty phase last week, Deputy District Attorney Samantha Paixao asked jurors to consider the significance of the lives lost. Larin-Garcia’s attorney, John Dolan, told jurors he was shocked at the unanimous verdict, but asked jurors to consider that on the night of the fatal shootings, Larin-Garcia was “a 19-year-old kid,” intoxicated, and also has a family who will be affected by the penalty decision.
Prosecutors said Larin-Garcia was sitting in a stopped car with Montgomery, Raya and Garcia on the night of the killings, and first fatally shot Rivera, who was leaning against the stopped vehicle, according to prosecutors. The driver sped away after that shooting, but Larin-Garcia — who was in the back seat — then fatally shot the trio inside the vehicle to eliminate witnesses and jumped from the moving car before it crashed into a parked Jeep at Sunny Dunes and El Placer roads, prosecutors said.
Montgomery, Raya and Garcia were found in the crashed Toyota Corolla around 11:40 p.m. the night of the killings, while Rivera was found on a street about a half-mile away, according to prosecutors.
Larin-Garcia was found near the scene of the crime and taken to a hospital, but he left after being questioned by Palm Springs police, going to a friend’s house. Detective Steve Grissom testified that the friend went to his mother’s home to retrieve fresh clothing and an ID card for the defendant.
Later in the day, the friend also bought bandages for Larin-Garcia, along with a Greyhound bus ticket to Florida under the name “Joseph Browning,” Grissom testified.
At some point that day, Larin-Garcia shaved his head to change his appearance, then the friend drove him to the bus station in Indio, where Larin-Garcia was arrested, Grissom testified.