More than four years ago, Arthur Gomez Jr., the father of six children and a volunteer with the Parlier High School football team, was gunned down in front of family members in a dispute with his neighbor over trash.
On Wednesday, a trial began in Fresno Superior Court for Joel Valera, 41, who is accused using a 12-gauge, pump-action shotgun to kill Gomez, who was unarmed.
If convicted of first-degree murder, Valera would face 50 years to life in prison.
In opening statements, defense attorney Marina Pincus conceded that Valera shot the 40-year-old Gomez in the chest. But she told jurors that Valera felt outnumbered when he was confronted by Gomez and his two sons, ages 13 and 16, and his 17-year-old nephew.
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Prosecutor William “Billy” Terrence, however, told the jury that the killing was a clear case of murder since Gomez and his family members were unarmed and did not provoke the attack.
The trial in Judge Houry Sanderson’s courtroom is expected to take three to four weeks.
The shooting happened on Seventh Street near Corto Avenue in the afternoon of March 7, 2014. Since the killing, Valera has been in the Fresno County Jail.
Court records say Valera spent time in prison after being convicted in Tulare County Superior Court in 1998 of domestic violence and unlawful sex with a minor. Because of the felony conviction, Valera was later deported.
It’s unclear when Valera returned to California. But when he did, Terrence told the jury that Valera had been using an alias of Joseph Guttierez for 10 years before his arrest in Gomez’s slaying.
Jail logs say Valera is being held in jail without bail and has an immigration hold.
Gomez, who was known as “Artie,” was born and raised in Parlier. Fondly nicknamed “Pelon,” which is Spanish for “Baldy, ” Gomez had been involved with Parlier’s youth football league for about 20 years and also volunteered at Parlier High School.
He is survived by his wife, Debbie, and his six children.
In opening statements, Terrence described Valera has a man who was unemployed for 10 years and slept in till noon while his longtime girlfriend took their three children to school and worked.
Terrence also told the jury Valera concealed his true identity from his girlfriend because she knew him as Gutierrez.
Terrence laid out the prosecution’s case:
Gomez and his family had lived in their home 15 years. Valera and his family moved in next door six to eight months before the fatal shooting.
On the day of the shooting, Gomez and his two sons and nephew were packing for a camping trip. Valera woke up late, Terrence said, and went to the front door and stared through a black security door toward Gomez’s sons and nephew who were on the front lawn.
Gomez’s 13-year-year-old son felt uncomfortable about Valera staring at them, so he told his father, who was inside his home getting ready to go camping.
Gomez went outside and saw Valera behind the black security door. For awhile, nothing was said, and Valera left the front door and returned a short time later.
According to Terrence, Valera shouted, “What’s up?” Gomez replied, “Well, what’s up?”
Valera then complained that Gomez’s children were throwing trash on his property. But Gomez denied the accusation. That’s when Valera walked outside, hiding a shotgun behind one of his legs. A small brick fence, bushes and trash cans separated the two men.
Terrence said Valera walked toward Gomez and shot him. The shotgun blast happened so fast, Gomez was unable to run or tell Valera not to shoot him, Terrence said.
Valera fired two more rounds before Gomez’s 16-year-old son helped his father find safety in their home, Terrence said. Meantime, his 13-year-old son and nephew ran down the street to get help.
Pincus said Valera called 911 and waited for police.
She told jurors that Valera didn’t know Gomez and had no prior confrontation with him or his family. She said Valera typically “kept to himself” and had no friends or contact with neighbors. His normal routine was to stay inside his home, with the lights off and blinds closed, cook for his family and take care of children until their mother arrived home from work.
“He was a home dad,” Pincus told the jury. “His girlfriend will testify that he was a good father.”
Pincus said also told the jury that Gomez started the confrontation when he told Valera: “What’s up?” She said Gomez wanted Valera to come outside.
Valera took the shotgun outside, Pincus said, not to kill someone, but for his own protection. “They were cursing (Valera) and coming toward him,” Pincus told the jury. Valera told them to stop, but they wouldn’t, she said.
After all the testimony is heard, Pincus said, the key issue in the trial will be, why did Valera feel the need to shoot Gomez?