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Unexpected guilty plea in middle of murder trial

Jose Arreola Cruz admits 1995 murder after four days of witness testimony

An East Palo Alto man standing trial for a 17-year-old murder suddenly admitted his guilt in the middle of his jury trial on Thursday, Sept. 20.

Jose Luis Arreola Cruz, 39, admitted to second-degree murder in the courtroom the day after his daughter testified about her mother's murder in San Mateo County Superior Court. She was 3 years old at the time of the murder.

Cruz is accused of the stabbing death of his 19-year-old ex-girlfriend, Gabriella Tello, after a First Communion party in East Palo Alto on May 21, 1995.

After discussion with the victim's family and the District Attorney, Cruz was allowed to plead guilty to all charges. The guilty plea included an admission of second-degree murder and a knife-use enhancement. Cruz will be sentenced to the maximum sentence of 17 years to life in prison.

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 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 couple's daughter, Stephanie, witnessed the crime.

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 Cruz, 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 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 her sister Monica discovered her dead on the kitchen floor. 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 10, 2011, when he was arrested by border patrol trying to re-enter the U.S. near Laredo, Texas. Cruz had 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.

Cruz will return to court Nov. 1 at 9 a.m. for sentencing. Tello's family members will be allowed to speak and make victim-impact statements prior to sentencing.

Bay City News Service contributed to this report.

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