O.C. Jury Convicts Man in Grisly Double Murder
A former Mater Dei High School honors student was convicted Friday of slashing to death his best friend’s parents in their home after spending a wild night of partying with the couple’s son and other graduates of the private school.
Gerald Thomas Johnson, 21, sat silently as the court clerk read the first- and second-degree murder verdicts, which resolve only part of the mystery surrounding the slayings of Jose R. Najera and Elena Castro Najera in Garden Grove two years ago.
Police have long suspected that Johnson’s friends--including the couple’s son--knew more about the killings than they told investigators, and the prosecutor could not put forth a clear motive for the attack.
Behind Johnson in Orange County Superior Court on Friday, the sister of the slain woman choked back tears and clasped the hand of her son, Gabriel Gonzalez. When sheriff’s deputies grabbed Johnson to escort him back to a jail cell, Gonzalez rose too.
“I hope you rot in hell!” he shrieked at Johnson, who never looked back.
The confrontation marked the climax of an emotional three-week trial in which defense attorneys accused the Najeras’ son, Jose Jr., of stabbing his parents, then framing his best friend, Johnson.
Najera was the first to discover the bloody bodies of his parents on the morning of Dec. 28, 1999. The couple’s son had returned home after spending the night at Johnson’s home partying with fellow graduates of Mater Dei High School.
The slayings left Najera as the sole heir to his family’s home and $77,000 in cash his parents kept in a safety deposit box.
Police never named Jose Najera Jr. as a suspect but publicly voiced doubts that he had told them everything he knew about the night of the murders.
Najera, now 21, was called as a witness in the trial but refused to answer questions, invoking his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Outside court, jurors said they hoped police would continue to investigate the slayings.
“It was such a brutal murder. I wouldn’t want to see anybody walk away from this,” juror Ronald Roys, 65, said.
Both victims were stabbed more than 20 times in an attack that Garden Grove police describe as the most gruesome the city has seen in 20 years. On Friday, police said they are still on the case.
“We’re very happy with the outcome, but it’s still unresolved,” said Sgt. Mike Handfield, who supervised the homicide probe. “We think that some others were involved in this, and we intend to do everything we can to find those answers.”
In the end, the jury of six men and six women was convinced by a battery of physical evidence that prosecutors used to show that Johnson was at the murder scene.
Investigators found a bloody ski cap beside the Najeras’ bed containing strands of hair and saliva that were linked to Johnson through DNA tests. At Johnson’s home, police also discovered drops of blood that matched that of Jose Najera Sr.
“It was such strong, convincing DNA evidence, along with the blood trail back to the house,” Roys said.
Johnson was found guilty of first-degree murder in the death of Jose Najera Sr., 42, and second-degree murder in the case of his wife, 42. Johnson faces a mandatory punishment of life in prison without parole when he is sentenced May 24.
Friday’s verdict brought little relief to relatives of the Najeras, who said they continue to grieve for the couple.
“It closes a door, but it doesn’t bring them back,” said Gonzalez, who was close to his uncle. “My mentor is never coming back. I’m the person I am today because of him. He believed in me.”
Deputy Dist. Atty. Bruce Moore argued that the elder Jose Najera most likely struggled with his assailant in the middle of the night, tearing hair from the intruder’s head before succumbing to stab wounds. Najera’s wife, Moore told jurors, probably interrupted the killer a short while later and was herself attacked.
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