by David M. Greenwald
Last week a jury acquitted Justin Gonzalez of second degree murder in a retrial of the 2016 Casa Del Sol murder. Gonzalez spent seven years in prison for a crime that the evidence in the second trial clearly showed he did not commit.
This week the Vanguard caught up with Gonzalez who has now moved to Oregon with his wife to begin a new chapter of his life.
Vanguard: What was the first thing that you ate when you left?
Justin Gonzalez: We ate bacon and eggs at Black Bear Diner.
We actually just hit the road straight to Oregon, but that was the first thing that we ate was we stopped at Black Bear Diner, had bacon and eggs. But everything I’ve been eating, it’s just like, I’m like, man, this is the best thing I’ve eaten since I’ve gotten out. So it’s like every meal I’ve had so far, I feel the same way about it.
Vanguard: I watched most of the trial and one thing I was always amazed at is you had perfect cool throughout the whole thing. It didn’t matter what anyone said, nothing seemed to phase you.
Justin Gonzalez: Yeah, I just had to keep a straight face for the most part, even when I was, them saying their lies against me, it’s just like, I know nothing I do is going to change what they’re going to say.
Vanguard: So when all of this went down, I mean, what were you thinking? Were you thinking you were going to get out in a few weeks or what?
Justin Gonzalez: My initial thought was, oh, they’re just trying to scare me. They were just trying to get me to basically roll over on Alex (co-defendant Alexis Velasquez) and say whatever I knew about it. And so I thought, yeah, I, I’d be out in a few weeks. Honestly, I thought I was going to get a parole violation for being around another gang member. So that’s what my initial scare was. And when they told me they were charging me with murder, I really didn’t believe it because I knew I didn’t do anything. So I was like, well, I didn’t do anything and see nothing, so I know they’re just trying to scare me. That was my initial reaction.
Vanguard: At what point did it get real for you?
Justin Gonzalez: Well, when it got real was when I was in the jail. It was probably about a week or so in, and the parole officer came and she said it was for the violation, and then she had me sign something for the violation, and then she said, oh yeah, and by the way, you’re charged with murder as well.
She had brought up a statement that said that there was two participants in the murder and that one person bear hugged the individual. And they were saying that there was actually two people that did it, and they were accusing me of being the person to bear hug.
And that’s when I kind of lost my cool, and I said, what the F? I didn’t do none of that. That’s the F-en lie, that’s the lying witness, (Raquel) Ponce-Perez.
So after that, I was just like, man, I couldn’t believe it was real. She showed me it on paper, and it was someone’s statement.
I had asked Alex, I said before that what really happened? And he said he did it by himself. So then I asked him again after that, I said, Hey, was there someone else with you? Was there another Northerner with you or something saying two people were involved in this? And again, he just said, no. He did it by himself.
Vanguard: And so you go through the first trial and you get convicted and they give you 70 years to life. What are you thinking at that point?
Justin Gonzalez: Well, they gave me the 45 years to life, and then an additional 25 to life, and then plus 20 years in enhancement. So it actually all added up to 90 years to life once I got to CDCR. But at that point, I remember I went into the holding south and I kind of broke down and cried, and I was just telling God, I said, God, I thought you would deliver me from this. I’m innocent.
And I made my mind up right there. I said, I’ve been walking with you all these years. Well, at that point, it was only a year and a half, but I said, I’m not going to give up now. I’m not going to lose my hope and my faith. I believe someday you are going to deliver me. And I just kept that mindset, I’m not going to lose hope or faith. I’m just going to keep believing that God is going to bring me on someday. And that was my mindset from going in.
Vanguard: At what point did you decide to drop out of being a gang member?
Justin Gonzalez: Honestly, the first night in the cell at the Woodland Police Department, that first day they brought us in. I made my mind up. I said, I’m done with all of this. I’m going to take the steps to drop out.
Vanguard: And what was it like doing that? Did you feel like you were at risk, or did it seem like you were okay?
Justin Gonzalez: Honestly, it felt like the hardest decision that I ever had to make, but I knew it was the best decision I would ever make. And I guess I felt like, I can’t explain it, but I felt like I was kind of just turning my back, I guess, on everybody, and that no one would like me because that was my social circle, and I just felt like an outcast at that time.
Vanguard: From your perspective, I mean, you were there watching the whole trial. I was mean, did they get it right or were there parts that they still got wrong
Justin Gonzalez: Yeah, well, obviously the freaking, the whole beer hooks and everything, none of that happened. He did it by himself. So the entire case was just, it’s complete lies from Ponce-Perez, everything she said, it is all one big made up story. It’s like, I can’t understand how someone could literally make up that story, put an innocent person in jail. I can’t even wrap my head around it. But I would say the whole thing was all just made up. They just included me in the entire mix.
Vanguard: It seemed like watching (Prosecuting Deputy DA) Robin Johnson that by the end even, she didn’t quite believe it. Did it feel like that to you?
Justin Gonzalez: Yeah. I mean, I think her and Pimentel. Pimentel looked convicted once Ron (Johnson, Deputy Public Defender) cross-examined him, I could just looking at them and their whole case, she was just reaching for nothing at that point, it felt like.
Vanguard: What do you think the motivation was?
Justin Gonzalez: Honestly, I’ve known Pimentel since I was 15, and he never liked me. And basically that’s what I would say. So once he seen me involved in this, he kind of just was like, oh, you had to be involved in this. And he kind of painted the picture, and then he had the false witness statement to go off of, even when everything was showing she was lying from the video and the DNA evidence, she still just kept to her story, and he chose to believe that over logic, which is the video and everything else. So that’s my perspective on it.
Vanguard: From my perspective, watching the whole thing was kind of the disconnect between the video and what the witnesses were saying for the prosecution. And it’s like, oh, believe the witnesses don’t believe your own eyes, and it never made sense.
Justin Gonzalez: It doesn’t make sense at all. I don’t understand how the DA could literally do that. It’s so obvious I’m innocent, but they still wanted to push for a conviction. It just doesn’t make no sense to me other than corruption is the only thing I can think of.
Vanguard: So how close were you when the stabbing happened?
Justin Gonzalez: I never left that corner. Those shadows were me the whole time.
(There was video of much of the scene, but there was a blind spot between the two camera angles. And Public Defender Ron Johnson pointed to some shadows that were visible on the video as the location of Justin Gonzalez at the time when the murder took place—also off camera.)
Justin Gonzalez: I never passed that corner at all.
Vanguard: So did you not even see the stabbing?
Justin Gonzalez: Honestly, I thought the entire time until we started going to court. And then my, Keith Staten, original trial attorney, had told me who had actually got killed the entire time. I thought Alex killed the guy that was on the skateboard that whole time. I thought that’s who he killed.
Vanguard: Wow. So at what point did you realize that that’s not who he killed?
Justin Gonzalez: Well, once Keith had came and talked to me and was telling me who had actually died, and I’m just like, well, I never did. He just tell me a Filipino guy. I’ve never even seen this guy before. I dunno who you’re even talking about. I thought it was the guy on the skateboard the entire time. I thought Alex had went back and looked for him or something.
Vanguard: So was Alex just bent on doing something that night, or do you think he got in over his head too?
Justin Gonzalez: No, from what I know now, tying everything together, I want to say Alex actually did have some type of sexual relationship with Ruby Aradoz… So I think I want to say she came looking for Alex because they had some type of relationship going on. And my best bet, well guess, is saying to tie it all together, once Alex seen Aradoz on the corner right there, I could only assume in the blind spot, she’s telling Alex like, Hey, Oso someone just stabbed me. And that’s when he kind of was like, oh, it’s on, because that was his girlfriend or whatever you want to call it.
Vanguard: What did you learn from all this?
Justin Gonzalez: Well, I learned don’t associate with gang members, and that was basically the biggest thing. That’s why I dropped out just, yep.
Vanguard: So what is your plan now?
Justin Gonzalez: Well, I already started school for ministry. My wife’s already enrolled me, well, she’s enrolled me a while ago, but I’ve been doing all these courses the last since I’ve been home. So already I’m just flying through these courses just to be, I guess you could say like a youth pastor or minister to the youth on a wrong path, and just share my testimony and try to show him a better way and incorporate God into their lives and leave the darkness and all that stuff.
Vanguard: Tell me the story of how you met your wife and when you guys got married.
Justin Gonzalez: Oh, we actually met when we grew up in Winters. So we met as kids. We went to school in Winters, and she had just came back into my life literally six months ago. Out of nowhere, we started talking again, and we actually got married in jail while I was in jail this time, waiting for trial through paperwork… a notary actually signed off, and then a judge signed off on the marriage certificate. So that’s actually how we got married through here. And our whole marriage is just based off our faith and God, and just believing in what he spoke to my heart and bringing the truth to light in my innocence. And she stood with me the whole way every day through it.
Vanguard: Is there anything else you think people should know?
Justin Gonzalez: Well, I mean, man, well, I think everyone needs to know about freaking Yolo County’s corruption. That’s something I definitely want everyone to know. Just, I mean, Yolo County, the DA’s office in particular, is got some serious corruption that needs to be exposed.
Justin Gonzalez: That’s my biggest thing right now is just because, I mean, Jeff Reisig wrongfully convicted me (Reisig was lead counsel in 2017 in the original trial), and I did seven years, two months in my life for a wrongful conviction. When I had all the evidence to prove my innocence, they still tried me again and tried to send me back to prison for life. So I think any other district attorney…
I’ve seen other cases, I think one in particular was in Ventura County, and this man was charged with attempted murder and gang enhancement. And the private investigator actually only found one witness to basically prove his innocence. And she brought that witness to that DA, and they exonerated him with just one witness. And I brought multiple witnesses, DNA evidence. It’s just like, what more could you ask for? And they just seemed so, I can’t even put it in words.
(Justin Gonzalez told the Vanguard that neither the DA’s office nor prosecutor Robin Johnson have said anything after the verdict. He did say that when they were taking pictures at the end, Robin Johnson pushed passed and said something along the lines of “Watch out Ron” to Ron Johnson, the public defender).