A judge found ample evidence Monday to try a 47-year-old Atwater man for allegedly killing his nextdoor neighbor after a simmering dispute between the two boiled over.
Fabian Zavala-Pena is accused of shooting 46-year-old Gregorio Gonzalez on Oct. 17, 2006. After the killing, Zavala-Pena was on the run from law enforcement, but was arrested in December in Lathrop last year.
During a preliminary hearing Monday, Judge Ronald Hansen decided to try Zavala-Pena after hearing testimony from the defendant's brother and detectives with the Atwater Police Department. He's charged with first-degree murder and using a firearm to commit a felony.
Atwater police say Zavala-Pena and the victim had been quarreling for about two weeks before the shooting. Police say the conflict was sparked after Zavala-Pena's teenage daughter ran away from home -- and the victim's family was accused of offering her assistance.
Prosecutors believe Zavala-Pena shot the victim in the chest outside of his residence in the 1900 block of Olive Avenue. On the other hand, Zavala-Pena's defense claims it was Gonzalez who was the aggressor and the killing happened in self-defense.
After Zavala-Pena was arrested more than three years after the killing, he told detectives Gonzalez had approached him with a gun.
Zavala-Pena said he pushed the gun Gonzalez was holding in his hand and it went off, fatally wounding the victim, according to testimony given Monday by Detective Adolfo Lomeli.
Chief Public Defender Eric Dumars said his client is standing by that claim. "Mr. Gonzalez came after Fabian with a gun," Dumars said. "Fabian was in fear for his safety and that of his family. He wants the truth to be told and expects to be vindicated at trial."
Deputy District Attorney Steven Slocum didn't want to comment on the case's specific details, but he strongly disagreed with Dumars' claim. "I don't think the evidence is consistent with a self-defense argument, based on everything that we have," Slocum said.
Luis Zavala-Pena, the defendant's 56-year-old brother, testified Monday he was standing on the porch of the defendant's Atwater home the day of the shooting. Using a Spanish interpreter, the brother said he heard a single shot, turned around and saw the defendant walking with a "revolver-type" gun in the yard.
The defendant's brother also testified he saw a man lying on the ground.
Hansen called a recess during the hearing after Luis Zavala-Pena emotionally broke down under cross-examination by the defense. Dumars was questioning Luis Zavala-Pena about a crime scene map, when the witness accused the defendant's attorney of trying to confuse him.
The witness began crying uncontrollably, causing Hansen to stop the hearing. The son of the witness also expressed his concern to the judge, saying he feared for his father's health. After about 30 minutes, the defendant's brother was able to regain his composure and the hearing resumed.
After the hearing resumed, Dumars asked Luis Zavala-Pena if he was being truthful. "He was the murderer. He did it," he said, referring to the defendant. "There's nothing I can do about it."
Fabian Zavala-Pena was arrested by San Joaquin County sheriff's deputies after a standoff at a Lathrop apartment complex. No one was hurt during that incident.
The next court hearing in Zavala-Pena's case is scheduled for March 9.
Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.