A trial for a man charged with murdering his 19-year-old ex-girlfriend after a First Communion party in East Palo Alto more than 17 years ago got under way in San Mateo County Superior Court Monday, Sept. 17.
Jose Luis Arreola Cruz, 39, sat without expression and used a Spanish language interpreter throughout Monday's proceedings. Deputy District Attorney Al Giannini said in his opening statement that Cruz stabbed Gabriella Tello so many times in the neck and chest in the kitchen of her home on May 21, 1995, that her head was nearly severed.
Motivated by a combination of alcohol, "jealousy and stupidity," Cruz allegedly killed his ex-girlfriend with two different kitchen knives that were recovered from the scene, Giannini said. Prosecutors said that the crime was witnessed by the couple's daughter, Stephanie, who was almost three years old at the time.
"This is a very simple, sad, brutal story," Giannini said.
Cruz met Tello when she was just 16 years old, and she quickly became pregnant. The two lived together intermittently, and their relationship was abusive from the start, Giannini said.
"He used to hit her, he used to grab her. They used to have loud fights all the time for various reasons," he said.
One of Tello's younger sisters, Rocio -- who testified Monday afternoon -- said that there were occasions when she saw Cruz push her sister downstairs and pull her into the bathroom, where he would slap her and pull her hair.
Tello eventually broke up with the defendant, though the two still had contact because of Stephanie, Rocio said. Rocio was among four children celebrating their First Communion on the day of the murder. Cruz showed up uninvited to a party celebrating the event at the victim's uncle's house in East Palo Alto.
Giannini said he intends to show the jury video footage taken at the party, which shows the defendant clearly drunk and arguing with Tello. The prosecutor showed a still image from the video during his opening statement, which showed Cruz wearing a purple shirt, talking to Tello alone in a corner of the backyard. Giannini said that multiple witnesses heard the two arguing over Tello's new boyfriend.
Eventually, Tello left the party to drop off one of her sisters, some friends and her daughter at a babysitter. Cruz followed in his own car and intentionally bumped into her vehicle the entire way, Giannini said.
The two made their way to Tello's home, where she was discovered dead on the kitchen floor by her sister Monica. Stephanie was found in a back room, where she had been locked after seeing her dad "hit" her mom in the head and chest, Giannini said.
Despite her young age, Stephanie "remembers vividly her father murdering her mother," Giannini said. Cruz immediately fled to Mexico, where he stayed until March 2011, when he was arrested by border patrol trying to re-enter the U.S. near Laredo, Texas. Cruz has always denied being in Tello's home, Giannini said, though a beer bottle with his fingerprint and his DNA on it was found in the kitchen.
Defense attorney Dek Ketchum declined to give an opening statement Monday. Cruz remains in custody without bail and faces life in prison if convicted.