Family and friends waited 27 years for justice in the death of Steve Guerra, 24, who was stabbed to death in a parking lot in the middle of the night, and Jason Alvarez, a friend of the killer who was stabbed accidentally and died.
More than seven months after fugitive Elio Benavente, 46, of Visalia, was arrested in Mexico and brought to the border, Tulare County Superior Court Judge Kathryn Montejano sentenced him Monday to state prison for 14 years and 4 months.
Earlier his year, he pleaded no contest to two counts of voluntary manslaughter.
The case was featured on the television show “America’s Most Wanted” and a local reward of $50,000 was offered for information about Benavente, who fled to Mexico in 1989. The reward never was collected because the tip to authorities that he was in Mexico was anonymous.
During statements by relatives of the dead men, Benavente mostly looked down at the table and showed little emotion.
“I know that from the time that you wake in the morning to the time you fall asleep at night, and all the hours in between, you will be reminded of the horrific attack by you on our son,” said Marlene Guerra, mother of Steve Guerra. “So now it’s time for our freedom of you and for you to be a prisoner of your thoughts, actions and deeds.”
Denise Hartson, who was dating Guerra at the time and watched him die in front of her, said she was only 21 and can never forget what she witnessed
“I watched his life run out,” he said. “I stroked his hair. I told him I loved him. As his blood went across my feet, I saw his life run out ... Like a coward, you ran away.”
The prison sentence is not long enough for the enormity of the crime, she said.
“The fact that you will serve less than one year for every stab wound you inflicted on Steve feels like a slap in the face,” she said. “Tell my why? Why did you kill him? That’s all I need to know.”
Bene Alvarez Quinones, the sister of Jason Alvarez, said she never will forget her brother, but her religious faith allowed her to view Benavente with a measure of compassion.
“I’m here to offer you forgiveness and hope,” she said. “I have no ill feelings toward you or hate in my heart.”
Sasha Boyd, Guerra’s daughter, said she was only 16 months old at the time.
“I grew up with a void where he should have been,” she said. “He couldn’t be there for my first day of school. He wasn’t able to be there for my graduation from high school. He wasn’t able to walk me down the aisle on my wedding day.”
About 3:30 a.m. on April 8, 1989, Guerra was driving Hartson to pick up her car from a parking lot outside the bar where she was employed.
Benavente was in a pickup that was following them and flashing its lights, his girlfriend told police.
Guerra stopped his car in the parking lot and got out and approached the pickup.
The driver flung open his door, hitting Guerra, she told police. An altercation began, and Guerra was stabbed. He bled to death at the scene.
Why the pickup was following and flashing Guerra was not established in court.
Shortly after the altercation, the pickup was found a few blocks away with Alvarez dead inside. He also bled to death, police said.
Police soon found Benavente, but didn’t arrest him for lack of evidence. A few months later, after an investigation, detectives got a warrant for his arrest, but he was gone.
Family and friends of the Guerra family stayed in touch with police to keep the case alive.
Visalia police Lt. Jeff McIntosh, who is now retired but stayed on the force to work the case, said about three years ago that police got a tip that Benavente was in Mexico. It took “a lot of legwork” to find him last year and bring him to justice.
A probation report said Benavente appeared to be married in Mexico and had children.
After sentencing, the Guerra family gave McIntosh a plaque thanking him for his work in solving the case.