Clovis News

Trial opens in killing of 3 in Clovis

It was a horrific scene: three men shot in the back of the head at a remote Clovis construction site and another man running for his life with his hands bound and bullets flying by him.

Four years later, the man suspected of ordering the killings is on trial in Fresno County Superior Court, facing three counts of murder and one count of attempted murder, as well as robbery and kidnapping charges.

If convicted, Gilberto Diaz Sanchez, 27, faces life in prison without parole.

In opening statements Monday, prosecutor Chris Gularte said Sanchez ordered the execution-style killings of Rafael Moreno Espinoza of Kerman; his brother, Heraclio Moreno Espinoza of Los Angeles; and a friend, Juan Euriel Zepeda, who had lived in the Fresno area less than a month after arriving from Mexico.

Prosecutors say another man, Cuahutemoc Valencia, was supposed to be killed the night of May 22, 2005, at Willow and Shepherd avenues, but he escaped and alerted police.

Valencia will be the prosecution's key witness in Sanchez's trial.

Lawyers agreed Monday that Gabino Luis Basurto shot and killed the three men and tried to kill Valencia. Jurors in Judge Wayne Ellison's courtroom, however, will have to determine whether Sanchez masterminded the killings. Gularte, a deputy district attorney, told the panel Sanchez "was clearly in control of the events."

Sanchez had a gun and knew the victims were going to get killed, Gularte said. He also got paid $6,000 after the deadly act was completed, Gularte said. But Sanchez's attorneys, Dan Harralson and H. Ronald Sawl, said their client was paid to help rob one of the victims -- not kill them. He even asked Basurto to spare their lives, but Basurto's girlfriend wanted them dead, they said.

Basurto was arrested the day after the killings and later was convicted on three counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder. In September 2006, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Sanchez was on the run for almost three years before police arrested him in Visalia in April 2008.

During his trial, Basurto said he was the middleman in a drug deal gone bad. But Valencia has given a different account of what happened.

According to Gularte, Valencia and his three friends were swimming with their families on May 22, 2005, when they decided to go to Basurto's home on Chance Avenue near Shepherd and Cedar avenues in northeast Fresno to watch a soccer game.

Once inside the home, the doors were locked behind the victims and Sanchez came out of a room with a gun, Gularte told jurors. Pointing the gun at the victim, Sanchez ordered Basurto to bind the four men's hands with duct tape, Gularte said. He then said, "Kill them all or I will kill you," according to Gularte.

Basurto drove the four men to a remote area and stopped. Seeing Basurto with a gun on his lap, Valencia ran from the vehicle, Gularte said. "He heard the shots fired and looked back and saw the flash of the gun."

With bullets flying, Valencia ran so fast he fell, Gularte said. But he managed to make it to a neighborhood and get help.

Police later found the three bodies, as well as Basurto's fingerprints and cell phone at the crime scene, Gularte said. Detectives later found the murder weapon -- a 9 mm handgun -- and linked it to him, as well as $58,000 in cash in his home, Gularte said.

Related stories from Fresno Bee