A sentencing hearing for a convicted killer began Friday with a prayer to God in honor of the murdered victim, popular Parlier youth football coach Arthur Gomez Jr., who was fatally shot by his neighbor in March 2014.
“O Lord, keep your hands on both families,” Gomez’s friend, Gary Zysling, said in Fresno Superior Court, referring to Gomez’s family as well as the the family of Joel Valera, who was convicted in August of killing Gomez.
“Amen,” the congregation said in unison.
Valera wasn’t in court to hear the blessing or his sentence of 50 years to life in prison for killing his unarmed neighbor. Judge Houry Sanderson ordered bailiffs to remove Valera from the courtroom because of his disruptive behavior.
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It was the same erratic behavior that caused him to miss part of his trial in August, when a jury convicted him in absentia of first-degree murder in shotgun slaying of Gomez, who was shot in front of his family.
Emotions ran deep during Friday’s hearing as family and friends tearfully described Gomez, who was known as “Artie,” as a pillar of the Parlier community. “The youth of Parlier also are victims,” Zysling told the judge. “The city will not be the same without Artie.”
Judge Houry Sanderson agreed, calling the 40-year-old Gomez an honorable man who sought to help others.
The judge had harsh words for Valera, describing him as “a coward” who has shown no remorse. “Mr. Gomez did not pose a threat to the defendant,” Sanderson said. “The multiple shots were not necessary.”
Gomez, who was born and raised in Parlier, was involved with Parlier’s youth football league for about 20 years and also was a volunteer football coach at Parlier High School.
Valera, 41, was living in the United States illegally.
Testimony in the trial revealed that Gomez and his family had lived in their home on Seventh Street near Corto Avenue for 15 years. Valera, his longtime girlfriend, and their three children moved in next door six to eight months before the fatal shooting in the afternoon of March 7, 2014.
During the trial, prosecutor William “Billy” Terrence said Valera had 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, giving Gomez no chance to survive, Terrence said.
The jury took about an hour to convict Valera.
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 said Valera had used an alias of Joseph Guttierez for 10 years before his arrest in Gomez’s slaying. Valera even concealed his true identity from his girlfriend because she knew him as Gutierrez, the prosecutor said.
Gomez is survived by his wife Debbie and six children. During Friday’s hearing, Debbie Gomez thanked Terrence and tearfully told the judge: “We were supposed to grow old together. Now our children are left without a father.”
Sanderson told Gomez and the rest of the gathering that she understood their pain and suffering. Sanderson implored them to remember Artie Gomez and what he stood for.
“I hope he remains with you and gives you guidance,” Sanderson said.