An accused killer who threw two tantrums during his Fresno Superior Court trial was convicted in absentia Thursday afternoon of first-degree murder in the 2014 shotgun slaying of his unarmed neighbor — popular Parlier youth football coach Arthur Gomez Jr.
Family and friends of Gomez clapped, cried and cheered when the verdict was announced.
Joel Valera, 41, missed the verdict because bailiffs escorted him out of Judge Houry Sanderson’s courtroom Thursday morning after he told the judge that he planned to disrupt closing arguments.
Proceeding without him, the jury took about one hour to convict Valera of killing Gomez, the father of six children. The jury of five women and seven men also found Valera guilty of firing the shotgun at Gomez’s home and lying to police after his arrest.
Prior to trial, Valera pleaded guilty to charges of being a felon in possession of a firearm. He faces 53 years to life in prison when he is sentenced Sept. 28.
The shooting happened on Seventh Street near Corto Avenue on the afternoon of March 7, 2014.
Gomez and his family had lived in their home 15 years. Valera, his longtime girlfriend, and their three children moved in next door six to eight months before the fatal shooting.
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 was a volunteer football coach at Parlier High School.
During the trial, prosecutor William “Billy” Terrence and defense attorney Marina Pincus agreed that Valera used a 12-gauge, pump-action shotgun to shoot Gomez in front of family members in a dispute over trash.
After both men greeted each other by saying, “What’s up?” Valera accused Gomez’s children of throwing trash on his property. After Gomez denied the accusation, Valera aimed a shotgun at him and fired three times, Terrence said.
The killing constituted first-degree murder, Terrence said, because it was deliberate and premeditated. In his argument, Terrence said Valera’s longtime girlfriend testified that he had two firearms that he keeps unloaded in their home — a shotgun and a .357 revolver. Terrence argued that Valera loaded the shotgun before he confronted Gomez. Valera then hid the shotgun behind his right leg as he approached Gomez, who was standing on his own front lawn, the prosecutor said.
“His intention was not to scare him,” Terrence said. “His intent was to kill.”
And during the shooting, according to Terrence, Valera said, “This is what’s up.” Afterward, Valera flipped off a woman who witnessed the killing and called police, Terrence said.
In total, Valera fired three rounds — two struck Gomez in the upper body; one struck his house.
Pincus, however, said Valera acted rashly and impulsively when he pulled the trigger. She asked the jury to convict him of the lesser charge of second-degree murder.
Since the killing, Valera has been in the Fresno County Jail, where he has an immigration hold.
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, Valera had used an alias of Joseph Guttierez for 10 years before his arrest in Gomez’s slaying. Terrence told the jury Valera even concealed his true identity from his girlfriend and she knew him as Gutierrez.
Court records say friction between Valera and Pincus, of the Public Defender’s Office, began Tuesday when he asked Sanderson if he could fire his lawyer. After the judge denied the motion, Valera asked to represent himself. Sanderson denied that motion, prompting Valera to make a second request to fire Pincus. But that motion also was denied.
On Wednesday, Pincus was about to present evidence in support of Valera when he made an outburst and was removed from the courtroom, court records say. Afterward, Pincus and Terrence rested their cases.
Before closing arguments Thursday, Valera told the judge outside the presence of jurors: “I am not willing to sit here and just get set up, railroaded.”
Valera told Sanderson his rights were violated because he was not given a fair chance to tell his side. Sanderson then asked him if he wanted to testify on his own behalf, but Valera declined.
Sanderson gave Valera several opportunities to sit in courtroom, but he declined, saying that if he stayed, he would disrupt the proceedings. Before leaving in handcuffs, Valera said, “You are going to do what you are going to do no matter what.”