A Pulaski County jury has convicted the man accused of fatally shooting a fellow immigrant, then enlisting his cousin and estranged girlfriend to help burn the body.
A 10-man, two-woman jury deliberated for about three and a half hours Thursday afternoon — finding 36-year-old Humberto Mesa-Vasquez (also known as Alejandro Vasquez Cabrera) of Somerset guilty of Murder, second-degree Arson, Tampering with Physical Evidence and Abuse of a Corpse in connection to the February 2018 homicide of 38-year-old Jorge Martinez.
Martinez was found the morning of February 24, 2018, in a burnt out vehicle on Rush Branch Road. His cause of death was later determined to be a .25-calibre bullet to the head.
During the course of a three-day trial, jurors heard evidence that Martinez was shot at the 431 S. Main St. apartment of Herberto Romero-Galvez and his son Heberto Romero-Ordonez, with whom he worked. Mesa-Vasquez, a cousin of Ordonez, had been staying there for around three months. The four men had been drinking beer on the night of February 23, 2018, when at some point, Mesa-Vasquez fired three rounds with a .25-calibre pistol — fatally striking Martinez in the head.
From there, testimony from Orndonez indicated that Mesa-Vasquez ordered Ordonez to help him dispose of the body while Galvez was to clean the scene. Mesa-Vasquez also enlisted the aid of estranged girlfriend Gloria Ortega to transport the body in her Chevy Tahoe. She and Ordonez followed Mesa-Vasquez as he drove Martinez' Ford Escort to a secluded spot on Rush Branch Road. The two men then transferred the body to the driver's seat of that vehicle, which Mesa-Vasquez then doused with gasoline and set ablaze. That car fire was reported to 911 at approximately 6:45 a.m. the morning of February 24, 2018.
Ortega's testimony indicated that she drove Mesa-Vasquez and Ordonez back to her home on Griffin Avenue, where the gun was later found by police buried in the back yard. Ordonez left this sequence out of his testimony, saying they were dropped off back at the apartment on S. Main St. While Mesa-Vasquez was gone disposing of the chair Martinez had been in, father and son went to the home of their boss to ask for help. The man's wife called 911, and the police had all three men in custody by 9:16 a.m. that same morning.
Both Ordonez and Ortega testified they acted out of fear of Mesa-Vasquez. They also were charged and ultimately accepted plea deals before trial for Complicity to Commit Tampering with Physical Evidence with recommended sentences of three years. Galvez was never charged and ultimately deported to Mexico.
One thing that no witness established at trial was a motive. During closing arguments, defense attorney Andrea Simpson put forth the theory that the killer could have been Galvez — noting that he had tested positive for the most gun shot residue of the three men and that other items collected from father and son were not DNA-tested after the initial statements pointed to Mesa-Vasquez as the killer.
"Where's the truth?" she asked the jury. "It looks like the blinders are on…It may sound like speculation but it's just as plausible as any testimony you heard from the Commonwealth."
Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney David Dalton acknowledged some inconsistencies in testimony but urged jurors to base their decision on the evidence rather that speculation. He stressed that any scheme or concoction the father and son might have come up with to frame the defendant or coerce Ortega to help would have had to be done in the span of less than three hours — once the car fire had been found.
"Most of the evidence was locked in at that point," Dalton said, adding that Ortega's participation proved Mesa-Vasquez was the "captain of the team" because the other men would have enlisted their own girlfriends or friends to assist.
Dalton also noted that, with the body burned, the case may have never even been solved had the Romero father and son not sought the help of their boss.
Once an alternate juror had been selected and released, the jury began deliberations just before 12:30 p.m.
They could only deliberate on the charges as indicted. The defense had asked that the jury be allowed to consider lesser offenses such as first- or second-degree Manslaughter and Reckless Homicide for the murder charge and Tampering with Physical Evidence for the arson charge. However, Pulaski Circuit Judge David Tapp declined to instruct the jury on those because, in part, there was no case law available to support tampering as a lesser included for arson and, regarding both charges, state law requires that trial evidence be presented which could support a lesser finding. While Simpson's cross-examination of witnesses appeared to be aimed at indicating another shooter, there was no questioning or volunteered testimony which indicated Mesa-Vasquez could have committed the act but lacked the intent required for murder.
The jurors deliberated until just before 4 p.m. — returning a guilty verdict on all counts. Mesa-Vasquez stood calmly as Pulaski Circuit Judge David Tapp read it aloud, after which the trial entered its penalty phase.
Dalton called Kentucky Probation and Parole District 20 Supervisor David McIver to explain the range of punishments each charge could potentially carry and when Mesa-Vasquez could be eligible for parole. First, however, he recalled Martinez' brother Edgar — who had also testified during the trial's initial guilt phase.
The victim's brother talked about how hard losing Jorge Martinez had been for the family.
"His children question why he doesn't call anymore," Edgar Martinez said through an interpreter. "I would like for this man to stay in jail forever."
As in the initial phase of trial, the defense rested without calling witnesses. With her client now facing a maximum sentence of life in prison, Simpson in closing asked for leniency with a minimum sentence of 20 years — for which he'd be eligible for but not guaranteed parole after 17.
"Humberto is a young man," she said. "There was no evidence of any criminal record and you heard that he was working…trying to be productive. With a life sentence, it could be every day for the rest of his life. My heart goes out to Edgar's family and so does Humberto's. Jorge's life should never have ended this way but give Humberto the chance for a future."
In his closing, Dalton told jurors that Mesa-Vasquez already has more of a chance than he gave Jorge Martinez. Holding up the victim's picture, the prosecutor said that the defendant showed Jorge no mercy or pity when he sentenced him to death. The justice system, Dalton added, was already giving Mesa-Vasquez a glimmer of hope because even with a life sentence, he would become eligible for parole after 20 years.
"It's a big thing, a hard thing that I'm asking you to do," Dalton said of asking for the maximum.
In the end, the jury took about 15 minutes to return with the maximum recommendation: Life imprisonment on the murder count, 20 years for arson, five years for tampering and 12 months with a $500 fine for abuse of a corpse. Because of the life recommendation, all other sentences must be served concurrently.
Judge Tapp thanked the jury for their service as well as counsel on both sides for their professionalism. Pending a pre-sentence investigation (PSI), formal sentencing has been set for October 4. Mesa-Vasquez was remanded back into the custody of the Pulaski County Detention Center.
Dalton also expressed appreciation for the jury; officers with Somerset Police, Pulaski County's Sheriff's Office and Kentucky State Police, co-counsel Neal Tucker and paralegal VeAnna Roberts.
"This was a horrible tragedy," Dalton said after the trial was over. "…The fact that [the jury] gave the maximum sentence speaks volumes, I think, about how horrendous this crime was."