Gabriel Gomez Trial: 2000

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Gabriel Gomez Trial: 2000

Defendant Gabriel Gomez
Crimes Charged: Murder, kidnapping
Chief Defense Lawyer: Antonio Bestard
Chief Prosecutor: Donald J. Clem
Judge: Robert Martinez
Place: Pomona, California
Date of Trial: October 23-31, 2000
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Life imprisonment without parole, plus 22 years

SIGNIFICANCE: The disappearance of Sandra Rosas, wife of Los Lobos cofounder Cesar Rosas, was immediately linked to her half-brother Gabriel Gomez. Although family members had no doubts that Gomez had kidnapped and murdered her, the lack of a body forced prosecutors to attempt to convict Gomez with circumstantial evidence.

On October 23, 1999, the popular band Los Lobos was about to go onstage in Louisiana when guitarist Cesar Rosas received devastating news from the West Coast. His wife, Sandy, was missing from their home in Rowland Heights, a Los Angeles suburb. Rosas rushed home to California to learn that police were holding and questioning his wife's half-brother, Gabriel Gomez.

Victim's Half-Brother Arrested

What little hard evidence police had suggested that Gomez was the last person to see Sandra Ann Rosas alive. When her daughters arrived home at 11 p.m. on the night she disappeared, they had found the front door open and broken windshield glass scattered in the driveway. The family's van was missing. The daughters frantically dialed their mother's cell phone number. Although no one seemed to answer the call, a phone connection opened and they could hear the voices of their mother and uncle. Two days later, police found the empty Rosas van in nearby La Puente. Gomez was arrested and detained without bail on charges that he had violated the terms of parole he was serving for a 1989 arson conviction. Authorities tried to reason with the ex-convict, attempting to get some idea of where the missing woman might be. Gomez denied having anything to do with her disappearance. As the Rosas family's excruciating wait turned into days, police expressed increasingly less hope that she might be found alive.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office charged Gomez with kidnapping and first-degree murder. The murder charge was filed "with special circumstances"if found guilty of a murder occurring during the commission of a felony, such as kidnapping, Gomez would be eligible for the death penalty. When Gomez was charged and arraigned, he pleaded not guilty, continuing to deny taking part in any crime.

Circumstantial Evidence Weighed

Gomez's trial began on October 23, 2000, a year to the day of Rosas' disappearance. The prosecution's primary obstacle was proving that a murder had occurred when no body had been found. Their strategy relied heavily on the circumstantial evidence that led police to arrest Gomez in the first place.

"Sandra's generosity is what got her kidnapped and murdered," Deputy District Attorney Donald Clem told the jury in his opening statement. Rosas, an adopted child, had met Gomez while searching for her biological parents in the mid-1990s. She allowed her half-brother to move in with her own family. She also helped find him work, including a stint on the road crew of her husband's band, Los Lobos, a critically acclaimed rock group widely known for their soundtrack work on the 1987 film "La Bamba." When relations between the Rosas family and Gomez began to sour, he was asked to move out. Rosas helped Gomez find an apartment and a new job, but increasingly distanced her half-brother from her own family. The prosecution theorized that Gomez was afraid the family might cut him off completely. As prosecutor Clem put it, "He saw his meal ticket slipping away."

When Cesar Rosas took the stand, he described how his kind-hearted wife had attempted to take Gomez under her wing. Her eldest daughter, Amber Steljes, recalled the cell phone call and testified that she heard Gomez say, "You can never leave me. I'm going to make mad, passionate love to you. I'm going to rape you. I'm going to strangle you." Blood traces found in Rosas' abandoned van were matched to both Rosas and Gomez through DNA analyses. A Los Angeles County sheriff testified that he found Gomez crying hysterically in his cell a week after the disappearance. "I don't know why everyone is bugging me," Gomez sobbed to the sheriff. "I can't remember where the body is."

Antonio Bestard, Gomez's court-appointed defender, offered a scenario in which Gomez had broken the van's window to retrieve her keys after she accidentally locked them inside. Bestard offered no theory as to what might have become of Rosas, but argued that no proof existed that his client had kidnapped her, let alone raped or murdered her as the prosecution was suggesting. The prosecution brushed aside the fact that Rosas' body had not been discovered. "The fact that a murderer successfully disposes of a body does not entitle him to an acquittal," Clem told the jury in his closing statement.

Gomez Reveals Burial Site

After two hours of deliberations, the jury found Gomez guilty on October 31. Outside the court, Cesar Rosas tearfully told reporters that Gomez "didn't just hurt me. He hurt hundreds of people." In spite of his family's suffering, Rosas expressed relief that Gomez would no longer be in a position to harm anyone else. On November 16, Gomez was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole on the murder charge, plus an additional 16 years for the kidnapping conviction. Judge Robert Martinez also added five years to the sentence for Gomez's unfulfilled 1989 arson sentence and a year for a drug arrest, for which he was liable due to his parole violation and conviction on the Rosas felonies. Judge Martinez told Gomez to consider helping investigators find Sandra Rosas' body to offer her family some closure from their trauma.

As soon as the sentencing was over, Gomez told a San Gabriel Valley Tribune reporter that if he had indeed killed Rosas, he had been too intoxicated with alcohol and cocaine to recall a murder or a burial. Yet within minutes, Gomez suddenly agreed to lead police to Rosas' body. Investigators spent the evening searching for a gravesite in Schabarum Regional Park near the Rosas home, without success. A few days later, Gomez told Judge Martinez that the body might be in a different park in rural Santa Clarita, 50 miles northwest of where he originally had steered investigators. On November 22, police and canine search squads discovered human bones in a shallow Sand Park grave. Family members identified jewelry, a hair clip, and nail polish found with the remains. Five days later, dental records officially confirmed that the bones were those of Sandra Rosas. She was buried in a private service soon thereafter, allowing her family the opportunity to heal, denied them by her killer for a year.

Tom Smith

Suggestions for Further Reading

"About the Sandra Rosas Case: The Basic Story." http://www.loslobos.org/sandra.asp.

Cain, Stephanie. "Killer of Rosas Given Life, No Parole." San Gabriel Valley Tribune. http://www.sgvtribune.com.

Cholo, Ann Beatriz. "Jury Convicts Man in Slaying of Singer's Wife." Los Angeles Times (November 1, 2000): B2.

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