A 23-year-old Los Angeles gang member convicted in the ambush-style murder of LAPD Officer Filbert Cuesta Jr. three years ago was sentenced Friday to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Superior Court Judge Robert J. Perry imposed the maximum prison sentence against Catarino Gonzalez Jr., a member of the notorious 18th Street gang.
A jury in June convicted Gonzalez of first-degree murder for fatally shooting Cuesta outside a Crenshaw-area wedding celebration. Gonzalez was also convicted of attempting to kill Cuesta’s partner, Richard Gabaldon.
Jurors decided not to recommend a death sentence.
Cuesta, a 26-year-old officer assigned to gang detail for the Los Angeles Police Department, was shot in the head Aug. 9, 1998, while sitting in a patrol car. He died the next day, leaving behind a wife and two young children.
Cuesta and Gabaldon had been on patrol on Carlin Street when they saw several gang members enter the wedding reception. While they waited for backup, bullets from a 9-millimeter semiautomatic handgun slammed into their car. In all, 11 shots were fired.
During a five-week trial, prosecutors argued that Gonzalez shot Cuesta because he believed the officer was trying to arrest him for violating probation on an earlier drug case. But defense attorneys maintained that Gonzalez was not the killer.
Prosecutors said Gonzalez admitted to police investigators that he had shot at the patrol car, but that he just wanted to scare the officers.
“My intent wasn’t to kill him,” Gonzalez told investigators shortly after the shooting, according to court documents. “My intent wasn’t to kill a cop.”
But defense lawyer Michael Artan argued that Gonzalez gave a false statement because of intimidation from investigators. Artan said detectives frightened Gonzalez and wore him down until he told them what they wanted to hear.
After the sentencing Friday, Artan maintained that his client was innocent and felt badly for the Cuesta family.
“He [Gonzalez] has stated unequivocally that Cuesta was a great guy,” Artan said, “and what a terrible loss it was.”
But Deputy Dist. Atty. Loni Petersen, who prosecuted the case, said she had no doubt that Gonzalez fatally shot Cuesta.
“The way he committed the crime was the most cowardly way possible,” she said. “He snuck around the entire block and executed him from behind.”
Though prosecutors had argued for the death penalty, Petersen said justice was done.
“He’s going to spend every day of the rest of his life behind bars,” she said. “I believe he deserves every day of that.”
Gonzalez was on felony probation for a drug-related conviction at the time of the shooting. Cuesta had been the arresting officer in that case.
Just five days before the shooting, Gonzalez was arrested again on suspicion of drinking in public. The next day, officers found spray-paint that they believed meant that Gonzalez was planning to retaliate against police.
Police were searching for him in connection with the graffiti on the night of the Cuesta shooting.