Photo by John Schreiber.
Photo by John Schreiber.

A man was convicted today of first-degree murder for repeatedly stabbing his ex-girlfriend in a darkened Santa Ana alley two years ago.

Jurors, who deliberated about two days, also found true a special circumstance of lying in wait and knife-use sentencing enhancement. Luis Antonio Garcia Morales will be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole on Jan. 23.

Morales, 26, tricked 21-year-old Maria Isabel Cerrillo into meeting him in the alley between Laurel and Jackson streets on Nov. 13, 2012, because she had stopped communicating with him. He stabbed her about 50 times and left her for dead.

Cerrillo had stopped responding to Morales’ text messages around Veterans Day that year, prompting him to buy a new phone in the name of the victim’s lesbian lover, with whom she had recently broken up, Senior Deputy District Attorney Jim Mendelson said.

Morales resumed exchanging text messages with Cerrillo, who thought she was communicating with her ex-live-in lover, and the two agreed to meet.

“She thought she was meeting a former girlfriend of hers,” Mendelson told jurors. “Instead, in that alley, she encountered defendant Morales. She was still clutching her keys as he stabbed her and left her to die.”

Morales planned an escape to Mexico, but an anonymous tip generated by news reports about the stabbing led authorities to the defendant in Santa Ana, Mendelson said.

Morales had been “obsessed” with Cerrillo, who grew frightened of the defendant and instructed her father to lie to him so he would stop bothering her.

The father told Morales, “Hey, she had an epileptic seizure and she’s gone to San Diego” and won’t return home for months, Mendelson said. But that didn’t deter Morales, who concocted the phone ruse to set up the meeting with Cerrillo, the prosecutor said.

After the fatal stabbing, Morales sold his Toyota Camry and called his boss at Chinatown Express and said he needed to quit his job and get his last paycheck before moving back to Mexico, according to Mendelson.

Police on a stakeout caught Morales at the restaurant.

The victim’s DNA was found under the defendant’s fingernails and a spot of blood from Cerrillo was found on Morales’ car door, the prosecutor said.

Kevin Song of the Orange County Public Defender’s Office told the jury that his client made such a scene with his boss, begging for his last paycheck the day before his arrest, that it aroused the suspicion of a diner who recognized the defendant from news reports on the stabbing.

The anonymous tip from the customer led to Morales’ arrest the next day when he showed up for work to pick up his last paycheck, Song said.

Morales thought he was going to marry Cerrillo, who was actually just using him for money, Song said.

The two grew close when they comforted each other over their prior failed relationships, he said.

“This case is about cautious hope, cruel betrayal… blind rage… and absolute panic,” Song said. “Maria Isabel was an attractive, young, sophisticated lady who turned out was very good with words and had perfected the art of leading people on.”

At the same time she was dating the defendant and living with her lesbian lover, Cerrillo had a long-distance relationship in Northern California with another man to whom she was engaged, Song said. He said she told a friend she was “only dating Luis for his money, because he buys her stuff.”

Cerrillo asked Morales to hire a “witch doctor” to cast a spell on her ex-lover and the ex-lover’s new girlfriend to end their relationship, Song said. A short time later, she stopped responding to his text messages, the defense attorney said.

Morales “was so desperate to know what he did wrong” that he pretended to be the ex-lover so he could get the victim to talk to him again, Song said.

When they did meet in the alley, “She told Mr. Morales she did not want a relationship with him, was only using him for his money, taunting him, ridiculing him,” he said.

“For lack of a better words, he flipped out” and attacked her with a pocket knife, “in what can only be characterized as the footprint of rage,” Song said.

Morales’ “bumbling” attempts to flee show “he had no plan,” his attorney said.

“This act, as unfortunate as it was, was a sudden fit of rage, a rage that had been building for years and manifested itself on that fateful day,” Song told the jury in arguing for conviction on a lesser charge than first- degree murder.

City News Service

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