Crime

Man convicted of first-degree murder in Coachella housemate slaying trial

The man took off to Mexico after he was suspected in his roommate's death

INDIO, Calif. - A Mexican national was convicted of first-degree murder on Tuesday for gunning down his Coachella housemate in 2004, then fleeing the country for nearly a decade before his capture in Mexico.

Walter Gastelum, 32, of Tijuana, is set to be sentenced Oct. 21 for shoot Manuel Ley at their home in the 53700 block of Van Buren Street. Ley was found dead in the kitchen on April 12, 2004, with shotgun wounds to his abdomen and chest.

Ley, Gastelum and several other people lived in the home, where investigators found a box of 12-gauge shotgun rounds in Gastelum's room, including a spent shell near Ley's body, according to the prosecution.

Jurors deliberated only a few hours before coming to a consensus, and Gastelum did not seem fazed when the verdict was handed down, though he asked to address the court.

Riverside County Superior Court Judge Victoria E. Cameron told the defendant that a statement would be more appropriate at his sentencing next month.

According to Deputy District Attorney Jacob Silva, Gastelum's uncle, who served as the landlord of the home, noticed that the defendant had issues with Ley days before the killing.

Gastelum's uncle said his nephew was agitated and upset while seen pacing outside Ley's room with a shotgun, claiming that Ley had gone into his room and possibly stolen some of his things, the prosecutor said.

When asked by authorities why Gastelum would have killed Ley, Gastelum's uncle said the two ``had a problem earlier in the day,'' according to a declaration in support of an arrest warrant.

``He said Walter and Manuel were talking by Walter's room near the doorway, and Walter was confronting Manuel about going into his room without permission. (Gastelum's uncle) had told Manuel to be careful because Walter appeared to be upset. Later, (his uncle) heard that Walter had gone over to his aunt's covered in blood and took her car to get away,'' the declaration stated.

Gastelum's attorney, Arnold Lieman, said today that Ley was armed with a steak knife and that Gastelum may have been provoked into the shooting. Investigators found the knife in Ley's waistband and Lieman said that his shotgun wounds showed the shooting occurred at close range -- close enough for the knife to be a viable threat to Gastelum.

Lieman also said that the key witnesses, Gastelum's aunt and uncle, were intimidated by law enforcement officials, who were more concerned with `"trying to solve a crime'' than finding out what really happened.

Lieman emphasized the language barrier at play with the Spanish-speaking witnesses, suggesting that they misinterpreted affidavits they signed after speaking with police in 2004. However, Silva countered that self-defense was not a factor and argued Gastelum planned the killing, waiting to kill Ley until all the house's other occupants left to go to a nearby casino.

Gastelum, who was in the country illegally, allegedly fled shortly after Ley's death, stealing his aunt's boyfriend's car, which was found in Tijuana a few days later near his parents' home.

His father refused to speak with investigators and his mother told police that Gastelum had traveled to the U.S. in search of work and that she had not seen her son in more than three months.

Silva said Gastelum's decision to flee only made sense because he was guilty.

``He came to this country looking for an opportunity to work, and then two weeks to a month later, is begging his aunt for a car to get back to Mexico,'' Silva said.

Gastelum was arrested in June 2013 in Sonora, Mexico. He unsuccessfully fought extradition, and was returned to the United States in December 2013.


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