Guillermo Espinoza. Photo via Anaheim Police Department
Guillermo Espinoza. Photo via Anaheim Police Department

The lone remaining defendant charged in the 1998 fatal ambush of a state corrections officer in Anaheim has pleaded guilty and was immediately sentenced to 21 years in prison.

Authorities tracked down 41-year-old Guillermo Espinoza in Mexicali, where he was arrested March 3 for his alleged role in the Jan. 17, 1998, killing of Elizabeth Wheat Begaren, according to Anaheim police Sgt. Daron Wyatt.

Espinoza pleaded guilty Friday to voluntary manslaughter and admitted a sentencing enhancement for the use of a firearm. One count each of murder and conspiracy were both dropped, along with special circumstance allegations of killing during a robbery and murder for financial gain. Those would have netted the defendant life in prison without the possibility of parole if he had been convicted at trial.

Espinoza, who was the triggerman, was offered a plea deal in part because of the difficulty prosecutors would have faced proving a case against him in trial, Senior Deputy District Attorney Larry Yellin said.

“The reason for the negotiated plea had a lot to do with the difficulty in prosecuting him based on the evidence,” Yellin said.

Prosecutors had a better case against the main man behind the killing, Nuzzio Begaren, the victim’s husband, Yellin said.

“Against Begaren we had physical evidence that corroborated the gang members’ testimony,” Yellin said. “Against this guy all we would have had was his fellow gang members testifying.”

In Begaren’s trial, prosecutors also had a torn up note from the victim with his fingerprint on it and torn up phone records that showed he had called a co-defendant, Yellin noted.

Espinoza had been living under an assumed name.

Espinoza was taken into custody in Mexicali in March 2015 on an unrelated case, but was released before authorities determined his true identity, Wyatt said.

Espinoza was immediately deported and brought back to Anaheim March 3, Wyatt said.

Nuzzio Begaren, 54, was convicted of hiring gang members to gun down his bride and was sentenced in May 2014 to 25 years to life in prison.

Rudy Duran, 40, was sentenced in May 2015 to six years in prison, but he had amassed that much credit for time served awaiting trial and was released. He pleaded guilty in March 2015 to conspiracy to murder and testified for prosecutors in Begaren’s trial.

Co-defendant Jose Luis Sandoval, who also testified against Begaren, pleaded guilty in October 2013 to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to time already served behind bars.

The killing appeared to investigators as a random roadside ambush, but detectives later figured out that Begaren had his wife killed to collect a $1 million insurance policy.

— City News Service

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