On 28 January 1999, police have
identified skeletal remains found more than three years ago as those of
one of four missing women linked to Martin Gonzalez, a man they suspect
is a serial killer.
Gonzalez, 46, of Austin, has been in the
Travis County Jail since November, charged with kidnapping Olivia Perez
Estrada of Austin, who has been missing since 29 October 1998.
The remains, found in a vacant lot in
East Austin on September 1995, are those of Sylvia Victoria Garcia
Gonzalez, the wife of Martin Gonzalez Three other women linked to
Gonzalez are still missing. Police said they believe he may also be
responsible for the disappearances of other people. "We have
several people we're looking for, but we're not real sure of their
status," said Detective Robert Merrill, of the Austin Police
Department. "We believe he is a serial killer."
Authorities identified the remains by
comparing DNA from the body with dried saliva found on flaps of letters
Sylvia Gonzalez sent to her family in Mexico, Merrill said. Sylvia
Gonzalez, who was 45, died from being bludgeoned in the head, Merrill
said. Police have not charged Gonzalez in his wife's death.
The other missing women linked to
Martin Gonzalez are Erica S. Perez, a woman in her 30s whom police
listed as missing in December, and Maria Gladys Flores, 53, who
was reported missing by Gonzalez in May. All missing women dated
Gonzalez at some point, police said. Curiously, Gonzalez has denied
knowing either his wife or Flores.
The search for the women began 29
October, after Estrada's relatives received a phone call warning them
to check on her. The caller also said Estrada was last seen with a man
named Martin. Police found blood in the hallway of Estrada's house and
in the back seat of her car. Her ring, found in the driveway of the home
at 2700 block of Webberville Road, also had blood on it.
Before he was arrested, Gonzalez told
police he was last at Estrada's house Oct. 27 but left after another man
arrived and began fighting with him. Police discounted the story, saying
the man Gonzalez identified had been in jail at the time.
Soon after Gonzalez was arrested,
police discovered he had reported Flores missing last May. Officers said
Flores had lived with Gonzalez briefly. In December investigators became
concerned about the whereabouts of Gonzalez's wife and Erica Perez, who
worked with him on a number of temporary jobs.
TEXAS COURT OF
APPEALS, THIRD DISTRICT, AT AUSTIN
No. 03-00-00668 -CR
Martin Gonzalez a/k/a Martin
Gonzalez Escamilla , Appellant
The State of Texas, Appellee
FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF TRAVIS
COUNTY, 147TH JUDICIAL DISTRICT NO. 0996134, HONORABLE WILFORD FLOWERS ,
Appellant Martin Gonzalez was
indicted for the murders of Sylvia Garcia, Maria Flores, and Olivia
Estrada pursuant to the same scheme or course of conduct. See Tex. Pen.
Code Ann. § 19.03(a)(7)(B) (West 1994). At trial, the district court
authorized appellant's conviction for capital murder if the jury found
that he murdered all three women, or any two of them, under the
requisite circumstances. The jury returned a general verdict of guilty.
Because the jury later answered the mitigation issue affirmatively, the
district court assessed punishment at imprisonment for life. See Tex.
Code Crim. Proc. Ann. art. 37.071, §§ 2(e)(1), (g) (West Supp. 2001).
Appellant does not challenge the
sufficiency of the evidence showing that he murdered the three women. He
contends, however, that the evidence is legally and factually
insufficient to sustain the finding that the murders were committed
pursuant to the same scheme or course of conduct, and that section
19.03(a)(7)(B) is unconstitutionally vague as applied to him. He also
urges that the court should have granted a mistrial when the State
elicited hearsay testimony from a witness. We overrule these contentions
and affirm the judgment.
Appellant married Sylvia Garcia in
Monclova, Mexico, in May 1994. She was forty-four and divorced from her
first husband. Appellant moved to Austin late that year, and Garcia
followed in March 1995. Garcia telephoned her daughter in Monclova
almost daily, and seemed nervous and unhappy. The last call to her
daughter came on June 8, which also was when Garcia's last letter was
received. Garcia was last seen at the Austin residence she shared with
appellant on June 24, 1995. Appellant moved from this residence the
following day, taking all the furnishings he and Garcia had brought to
Human skeletal remains were found
in a nearby vacant lot in late September 1995, but the body was not
positively identified until 2000, when DNA tests confirmed that the
remains were those of Sylvia Garcia. The cause of death was determined
to be blunt force trauma to the skull, which had multiple fractures.
Maria Flores, a native of Panama,
moved to Austin in 1994 with two of her children. She met appellant in
1998 when she was fifty-three, and soon began living with him. Flores's
daughter testified that appellant was a jealous man and was physically
abusive to her mother. Flores worked at two jobs and was forced to give
all her money to appellant. Flores, accompanied by appellant, left for
work on May 20, 1998, and never returned. Flores's daughter said that
appellant appeared nervous when she asked him if he knew the whereabouts
of her mother. Appellant reported Flores's disappearance to the police,
but the case was closed in June 1998.
Maria Flores's skeletal remains
were found in a field in southeast Austin on November 22, 1999. The
medical examiner found evidence of at least fifteen blunt force injuries
to the head and face caused by an object such as a hammer.
Olivia Estrada, who was fifty-four
years old, met appellant at a dance hall in 1998 and formed a
relationship with him. Appellant proved to have a violent temper, and
Estrada told her doctor that appellant threatened to choke her if she
tried to leave him. Estrada was afraid to call the police, fearing it
would provoke appellant to greater violence. Estrada's family grew
increasingly concerned for her safety, and in October 1998 urged her to
obtain a restraining order against appellant. They also devised a plan
by which members of the family would be with Estrada when she broke up
Estrada's daughter called the
police on October 29, 1998, after Estrada did not answer her telephone
for two days and family members found her house unoccupied. Estrada's
hall carpet was soaked with water, and blood spatters were found on a
bedroom doorframe, in the hallway, and on the kitchen door. Blood and a
ring belonging to Estrada were found in the carport, next to her car.
Olivia Estrada's skeletal remains
were found in a field in Bastrop County on October 18, 1999. The skull
showed evidence of blunt force trauma to the forehead and just above the
right eye. Estrada had also been shot in the back of the head.
Appellant was arrested for the
kidnapping of Olivia Estrada in November 1998. Further police
investigation connected him to Sylvia Garcia and Maria Flores. Appellant
was indicted for capital murder after the bodies of the three women were
found and identified.
A person commits capital murder if
he murders more than one person "during different criminal transactions
but the murders are committed pursuant to the same scheme or course of
conduct." Tex. Pen. Code Ann. § 19.03(a)(7)(B). Appellant contends the
evidence is legally and factually insufficient to support the finding
that he murdered the three victims pursuant to the same scheme or course
of conduct. He further argues that section 19.03(a)(7)(B) fails to
provide sufficient notice as to when two or more murders constitute "the
same scheme or course of conduct," and for that reason is
unconstitutionally vague. To prevail on the latter claim, appellant must
demonstrate that the statute is vague as it applies to his conduct.
Corwin v. State , 870 S.W.2d 23, 27 (Tex. Crim. App. 1993); Bynum v.
State , 767 S.W.2d 769, 774 (Tex. Crim. App. 1989).
The defendant in Corwin, over a
period of nine months, abducted, sexually assaulted, and fatally stabbed
two women, and fatally stabbed a third woman when his attempt to abduct
her failed. Corwin, 870 S.W.2d at 27. There was also evidence that the
defendant had engaged in similar conduct twelve years before and one
year after the alleged offenses, but in each of those instances the
victim had lived. Id. The court wrote:
In abducting, raping, and killing
or attempting to kill five women in more or less the same way over the
course of some thirteen years, . . . [Corwin] can reasonably be said to
have engaged in "a regular mode or pattern of . . . behavior." The
evidence shows that [the three victims] were each murdered pursuant to
this same "regular mode or pattern of behavior." Perhaps in hypothetical
cases, as the time and distance between murders committed during
different transactions increases, and as the actor's motive or modus
operandi vary, it will become more difficult for putative defendants and
law enforcement agencies to say with certainty that the murders occurred
"pursuant to the same . . . course of conduct." But [Corwin]
demonstrates no such uncertainty on the present facts, and the evidence
was sufficient for a rational jury to find it was in fact "pursuant to
the same . . . course of conduct that" [Corwin] committed these murders.
. . . Whatever doubt may exist at the periphery, we think that the "core"
conduct proscribed by [the statute] is clear enough, and that [Corwin's]
conduct fell within it.
Id . at 28-29 (footnote omitted).
Appellant argues that to uphold a
conviction under section 19.03(a)(7)(B) there must be evidence that each
murder was committed with a similar motive and in a similar way. While
Corwin does indicate that similarity of motive and method are relevant
considerations, the opinion also cautions that the statute does not
necessarily require a showing that the accused acted according to some "over-arching
objective or motive." Id . at 28. We believe that it is appropriate to
examine all the circumstances surrounding the alleged murders, rather
than to focus on only the two factors emphasized by appellant.
We believe that in forming intimate
relationships with three middle-aged women and then killing them and
disposing of their bodies in more or less the same way over the course
of five years, appellant can reasonably be said to have engaged in a
similar course of conduct or regular pattern of behavior. This is
particularly true with regard to Maria Flores and Olivia Estrada: the
two women were approximately the same age; each met appellant in 1998
and formed substantially identical relationships with him; appellant was
threatening and abusive to each; and each was murdered within a space of
only five months. All three victims suffered multiple blows to the head
with a blunt object, and appellant left each victim's body in a vacant
lot or field. We conclude that appellant had sufficient notice that his
conduct was proscribed as a capital offense because it was committed
pursuant to the same course of conduct, and that the jury could
rationally find beyond a reasonable doubt that appellant committed these
murders pursuant to the same course of conduct. See Jackson v. Virginia
, 443 U.S. 307, 324 (1979); Geesa v. State , 820 S.W.2d 154, 161 (Tex.
Crim. App. 1991); Griffin v. State , 614 S.W.2d 155, 158-59 (Tex. Crim.
App. 1981). Points of error one and two are overruled.
Appellant's argument in support of
his factual insufficiency claim does not point out any particular
evidence supporting the conclusion that he did not murder Garcia,
Flores, and Estrada pursuant to the same course of conduct. Instead,
appellant merely refers to his previous arguments regarding the
constitutionality of the statute and the legal sufficiency of the
evidence. In effect, appellant asks this Court to reweigh the evidence
and substitute our verdict for that of the jury.
Appellate courts exercise their
fact jurisdiction only to prevent a manifestly unjust result. We are not
free to reweigh the evidence and set aside a verdict merely because we
feel that a different result is more reasonable. Clewis v. State , 922
S.W.2d 126, 135 (Tex. Crim. App. 1996); Reina v. State , 940 S.W.2d 770,
773 (Tex. App.--Austin 1997, pet. ref'd). We must maintain appropriate
deference to the jury's verdict by finding error only when the record
clearly indicates that the verdict is wrong and manifestly unjust.
Johnson v. State , 23 S.W.3d 1, 9 (Tex. Crim. App. 2000); Reina, 940 S.W.2d
at 773. A decision is not manifestly unjust simply because the fact-finder
resolved conflicting views of the evidence in the State's favor. Roise
v. State, 7 S.W.3d 225, 233 (Tex. App.--Austin 1999, pet. ref'd). Point
of error three is overruled.
In his last point of error,
appellant contends the district court should have declared a mistrial
when hearsay testimony was elicited from a State witness. Detective
Robert Merrill was the lead investigator in this case. He was asked by
the prosecutor to describe the "consistencies among the disappearances
and murders of these women." Merrill answered, "Well, he was
romantically involved with all three of them. He had lived with all
three of them. We had indications that he showed signs of jealousy if
they talked with anyone." Appellant objected to the latter statement as
being based on hearsay. The objection was sustained and the jury was
instructed to disregard, but appellant's mistrial motion was overruled.
In the vast majority of cases in
which improper testimony is elicited, an instruction to disregard the
testimony will be deemed to cure the error. Gardner v. State , 730 S.W.2d
675, 696 (Tex. Crim. App. 1987). An instruction to disregard will be
inadequate only in extreme cases where it appears that the evidence was
clearly calculated to inflame the jurors and was of such a character as
to suggest the impossibility of withdrawing the harmful impression from
their minds. Id. The instant cause is not such an extreme case, and the
district court did not abuse its discretion by denying the mistrial
after instructing the jury to disregard. In light of other testimony
regarding appellant's jealous behavior, any residual prejudice was
clearly harmless. Tex. R. App. P. 44.2(b). Point of error four is
The judgment of conviction is
Jan P. Patterson, Justice
Before Chief Justice Aboussie,
Justices Yeakel and Patterson
Filed: October 18, 2001