He confessed to murder to free another defendant. Would judge agree?

Judge W. Kent Hamlin ruled Thursday in Fresno Superior Court that a convicted killer’s confession to the crime was a lie.
Judge W. Kent Hamlin ruled Thursday in Fresno Superior Court that a convicted killer’s confession to the crime was a lie. Fresno Bee file

Saying he wanted to “man up” for a crime he committed four years ago, a Fresno man testified Thursday in graphic detail that he alone stabbed a registered sex offender 58 times and then strangled him inside a detached garage in southwest Fresno.

In 2014, David Barrera and Patricia Ann Perez were found guilty in Fresno Superior Court of first-degree murder in the killing of Lawrence Ballesteros. Because Barrera is a career criminal, he was sentenced to 80 years to life in prison. Perez was sentenced to 26 years to life in prison.

During the trial, Perez testified that she had no reason to kill Ballesteros. She said she and the victim were friends and she had offered him a place to live in the detached garage. She also testified she was drunk and passed out in her home when Ballesteros was killed.

Barrera, however, never testified.

On Thursday, he gave his first public account of how and why he killed Ballesteros, in hopes of getting Perez freed from prison.

His plan didn’t work.

Judge W. Kent Hamlin said it’s highly unusual for a someone to confess to a “cold-blooded murder.” And because Barrera’s testimony showed he is a “cold-blooded murderer,” the judge said, his testimony is clearly suspect.

If Barrera was telling the truth, it would be legal grounds for a new trial for Perez, Hamlin said.

In denying Perez’s petition for a new trial, Hamlin agreed with prosecutor Jeff Dupras that Barrera’s confession didn’t match the physical evidence at the crime scene. For example, Barrera said he held a large kitchen knife in his right hand and stabbed Ballesteros on the right side of his back. But most of the stab wounds were on the victim’s left side.

Barrera also testified that he dragged the victim’s body by the ankles to his pickup truck. From the passenger side at the rear of the truck, he shoved the body into the back. But Dupras noted that a piece of the victim’s flesh and his blood were found on the driver’s side of the tailgate.

In addition, Barrera recalled seeing a teenage girl on the front porch of her home, telling her dogs to be quiet. He said the girl saw him and likely the body because he was propping Ballesteros up. But Dupras said testimony in the trial showed that the girl told detectives that she looked out of her bedroom window and saw Perez with Barrera near his pickup around the time of the killing.

But what concerned Hamlin was a letter Barrera had written to the District Attorney’s Office in November 2015. In it, he said he would confess to killing Ballesteros if prosecutors showed leniency toward his grandson who was accused of carjacking. The letter, Hamlin said, “doesn’t bode well for his credibility.”

In the end, Hamlin said Barrera got his confession all wrong. “It’s a lie, not an oops,” Hamlin said, adding that “his description of the murder doesn’t add up and his motive for doing it doesn’t add up.”

Hamlin said he doesn’t know why Barrera lied. “Maybe he felt sorry for Ms. Perez,” the judge said. Barrera also didn’t explain why he didn’t like child molesters since he never testified that he or a relative or friend had been victims of them.

But for three hours, Perez and her supporters in the courtroom held out hope.

The killing

Ballesteros, 60, was killed Sept. 18, 2012, a couple of weeks after he was shown on local television in a feature story about Operation Guardian Angel, a multiagency law enforcement task force that targeted registered sex offenders. The sex offense against Ballesteros was from 1984.

The killing happened at a home on Stanislaus Street near Chandler Downtown Airport, where Perez was living with another woman and her teenage daughter.

On Tuesday, Barrera told Hamlin that Perez was telling the truth.

To testify, Barrera waived his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination over the advice of his lawyer, Gerald Schwab.

On the witness stand, Barrera said he wanted to confess the moment Perez was sentenced to prison, but he was locked up in prison for more than a year in solitary confinement. He said his appellate lawyer also advised him not to confess.

But once he lost his appeal and prosecutors never answered his letter, Barrera sent a letter to Perez’s appellate attorney, Randy Kravis, in March this year, telling him he was the lone killer. “I decided to man up and take care of this because I could not live with this,” he told Hamlin.

Kravis then notified Perez’s trial lawyer, Mark Siegel. Together they fought for a new trial for Perez.

Barrera said he and Perez had been friends since high school and were not romantically involved. He said he was also a longtime friend of Ballesteros.

Barrera said he got upset when he learned from a television report that Ballesteros was a registered sex offender. “I was thinking he was a child molester,” he told the judge. “We all have children and that’s pretty offensive.”

He recalled that Perez had been drinking all day on the day of the killing. After running a few errands, Barrera said, he caught up with Perez at a children’s party and had a few beers with her. Because Perez was drunk, Barrera said, he drove her home and helped her into her house so she could sleep.

Barrera said he continued to drink that night. Alone in his truck, he sat obsessing for hours about Ballesteros being a child molester.

Around 11 p.m., Barrera said, he decided to confront Ballesteros. Angry, he went to his home and without knocking went into the detached garage. He then sat across from Ballesteros, who woke up and sat on the edge of his bed.

Barrera recalled taking a beer, sunflower seeds and a kitchen knife with him. He said his intent was to kill Ballesteros, but if he “showed humility and regret” for being a child molester, “I would let him go.”

“It was up to him,” Barrera told the judge.

Ballesteros, however, declined to answer questions about being a child molester, Barrera said. Ballesteros then took off his shirt as if to fight, he said.

“His attitude pushed me to make that decision to kill him,” he told Hamlin.

As a ruse, Barrera told Ballesteros he was leaving. When he said that, Ballesteros lowered his head. That’s when Barrera said he used his left hand to force Ballesteros’ head down and used his right hand to stab the victim in the back. The victim was flailing his arms and yelling but his screams for help were muffled from his face being forced into his lap, Barrera said.

After stabbing him more than 50 times, Barrera said, Ballesteros was still alive. “I told him if he laid down and died I would not stab him any more,” Barrera testified.

Barrera said he sat in a chair, drank beer and ate sunflower seeds while watching Ballesteros die. When he didn’t, Barrera said, he found an electrical cord and strangled Ballesteros until he died.

Barrera said he strangled the victim because “I felt sorry for him and I wanted to put him out of his misery.”

He then got rid of the body, bloody mattress and bloody blankets, and the murder weapons. “I cleaned up the mess like nothing happened,” he said.

Ballesteros’ body was found the next morning near Kearney Boulevard and Channing Avenue. The pair were arrested about a week later.

Pablo Lopez: 559-441-6434, @beecourts