The family of Juan Manuel Alvarez, the former Compton laborer convicted of murdering 11 people when he caused a deadly train crash three years ago, says that although they expect Alvarez to be punished for his actions, he does not deserve to die.
"If at any one point I really felt that he did this with any intent to hurt anybody, I wouldn't be here trying to defend him," said Beto Alvarez, 41, who raised his now 29-year-old cousin as a son. "He was not in his right state of mind. He was suicidal. He was very dangerous to himself. I don't believe he murdered anybody."
"If the jury puts him to death, then they are murderers of this person," added Juan Manuel Alvarez's wife, Carmelita. "He should be put in a mental institute."
Speaking at their home in Monterey Park in their only press interview since Alvarez's conviction, his relatives said they were sorry for the hurt caused to so many people, they expressed sympathy to the 180 people who were injured in the train wreck and they offered condolences to the families of those who were killed.
"They have a right to feel how they feel," Beto Alvarez said. "I don't want to disrespect anyone. I understand their anger and their frustration. I just want to tell our side of the story."
Beto and Carmelita Alvarez said they also want leniency for a man who they said survived an abusive childhood, was sucked under by drugs and felt that the world had caved in on him.
"He wanted to kill himself," Beto Alvarez said. "He was going through these emotions. We are all trying to get him help. He was in a very bad state of mind."
Last week, a Los Angeles jury took a little more than a day to convict Alvarez on 11 counts of first-degree murder. They also found him guilty of arson and a special circumstance allegation that makes him eligible for the death penalty. Jurors are expected to begin hearing more testimony next week to determine whether he should be executed.
During the trial, prosecutors argued that Alvarez intentionally turned a peaceful early morning commute on Jan. 26, 2005, into a scene of carnage in a perverted attempt to get attention and win back the affections of his then-estranged wife.
Prosecutors alleged that Alvarez doused his vehicle with gasoline and parked it on railway tracks just south of downtown Glendale. He fled shortly before a Metrolink commuter train slammed into the vehicle, derailed, hit a parked freight train and then collided with an oncoming passenger train.
Prosecutors depicted Alvarez as a manipulative, violent and dangerous liar. They contended that conducting "pretend" suicides was a tactic Alvarez used to try to solicit sympathy and pity. The jury believed them.
But Beto and Carmelita Alvarez said that if people took time to review Alvarez's life story, it might help them believe that he didn't act with malice and that he should be allowed to live -- and to get help. They are scheduled to testify during the penalty phase and plan to share details of Alvarez's life.
Alvarez was born in East Los Angeles and spent his preteen years in Mexicali, Mexico. When he returned to the United States, Beto Alvarez became the long-term guardian of Alvarez and the boy's older sister Cynthia.
Beto Alvarez immediately knew his young cousin would be a challenge. The boy had been beaten by his parents and grandparents and raped by an uncle. Traumatized, he had tried to kill himself several times -- the first time at the age of 8.
He exhibited signs of delusion, claiming he could see spirits and hear voices, Beto Alvarez said. As an adult he became hooked on methamphetamine. His seemingly irreversible downward spiral began in late 2003 when a hand injury prevented him from working, according to his cousin.
He felt worthless, Carmelita Alvarez recalled, "because he wanted to be the provider."
When he was not on drugs, Alvarez could be charming and caring, his wife said. "He was a good father. He would take [the kids] to the park. He would play with them."
The couple have a daughter, Andrea, age 10, and a son, Isaac, who is 7.
But Alvarez's drug use sent him over the edge, his wife said. He began to hallucinate and accused her of sleeping with other men. His delusions finally pushed her to get a restraining order against him, Carmelita Alvarez said.
Even though his lawyers confirm that Alvarez has been off drugs since going to jail, Carmelita Alvarez said her husband "still sees things."
"His mind is not there," she said adding that it's clear that "Juan Manuel Alvarez wasn't right, wasn't mentally stable" the day of the Metrolink crash.
"He wanted to end all those things he was seeing in his head," she said. "That's what I think."
Beto and Carmelita Alvarez said they regretted not being able to get Alvarez the psychiatric help he obviously needed. And they believe that if law enforcement personnel had been more willing to listen to them, and take action, when they complained about his irrational behavior, the tragedy might have been avoided.
A message Alvarez left on his cousin's voice mail shortly after the train wreck was desperate and the tone was hysterical.
"I didn't mean to do this, Beto," Alvarez sobbed. "A lot of innocent people died. I don't deserve to live, Beto. I apologize for everything."
Carmelita Alvarez said her husband left three similar messages for her.
His attorneys were confident the voice mail message would help convince jurors that Alvarez meant no harm to others.
But Judge William R. Pounders, who presided over Alvarez's trial, refused to allow the jury to hear the message left for Beto.
Pounders told the attorneys that "this sounds like somebody is playing a game . . . and that's the reason why it's not trustworthy."
The judge's ruling and other discrepancies have persuaded Alvarez's supporters that he didn't get a fair trial. They raise the unexplained disappearance of Alvarez's personal diary, which had been in the possession of prosecutors and police.
Jurors got to see some photocopied pages in which, five weeks before the tragedy, Alvarez wrote of his intention to end his life. But Alvarez's attorneys have wondered whether the remainder of the journal could have further highlighted their client's state of mind prior to the crash and possibly helped his case.
When Alvarez was jailed, his wife got the restraining order against him revoked, because "the kids wanted to see their dad."
Tears welled up in Carmelita Alvarez's eyes as she spoke of her decision to hide the details of her husband's actions, and his possible death sentence, from their children.
"They know their dad's in jail," she said. "They don't know why."