A man who was one of two people found fatally stabbed in a burning home in Oakland two weeks ago was a 73-year-old heroin addict and convicted murderer who was released from state prison in January after serving about 30 years, authorities said today. The bodies of John Gilbert Navaerette of Oakland and 56-year-old Renee Washington were found when firefighters responded to a fire at a two-story building in the 3100 block of Coolidge Avenue at about 1 a.m. on Sept. 11, police said. Navaerette and Washington were found inside a residential unit on the second floor.
An autopsy later revealed that Navaerette and Washington suffered multiple stab wounds, and authorities believe the fire was started to cover up the crime. Their bodies were so disfigured that authorities initially were unable to identify them. Washington was identified on Sept. 16 and Navaerette wasn’t identified until today. Six people were displaced by the one-alarm fire, which was extinguished within about 15 minutes, Oakland fire Battalion Chief Darin White said. A witness reported seeing several suspects running away from the building after the fire started, White said. Although Naverette was a convicted murderer, Oakland police said they don’t know the motive for his death and the death of Washington and doubt that revenge for his crime many years ago was a factor.
According to court records, Navaerette was convicted on May 22, 1981, for fatally shooting Neil Wesley in the vicinity of 23rd Avenue and East 15th St. in Oakland on Sept. 27, 1980. According to a summation of his case when the California Court of Appeal rejected his appeal on Sept. 23, 1981, Navaerette killed Wesley because he thought Wesley had stolen drugs from him. Navaerette, who was 42 at the time of the murder, “was a long-time heroin user who regularly sold heroin in the vicinity of 23rd Avenue and East 15th Street” to support his own heroin habit, the appellate court said. Navaerette’s practice was to place heroin-filled balloons in a crumpled paper bag on the street and wait for his customers to show up and he became upset when he discovered that a bag of heroin had been stolen while he had walked away from the corner for a short time, according to the court opinion. Other people told Navaerette that Wesley was the culprit so he tracked down Wesley and shot him twice, once in the hand and once in the back, the court said.
Navaerette claimed during his trial that he shot Wesley because he thought Wesley was armed with a gun and was reaching for it, according to the court. But Wesley didn’t have a gun and witnesses said he wasn’t making any aggressive gestures or sudden movements to indicate that he might be reaching for a weapon, the court said. Navaerette was convicted of second-degree murder, possession of a firearm, inflicting great bodily injury and being an ex-felon in possession of a firearm and was sentenced to 15 years to life in state prison by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Henry Ramsey on June 17, 1981. Ramsey said at the hearing that he was troubled by Navaerette’s “obvious lack of any expression of remorse” for killing Wesley and his “apparent unwillingness to accept personal responsibility for his conduct.” Navaerette’s lawyer, Michael Thorman, admitted at the hearing that Navaerette had a long criminal record but said it mainly for non-violent crimes such as committing thefts and selling drugs.
Thorman said Navaerette had a troubled childhood, as his father died early from “extreme alcoholism” and he became a ward of the juvenile court system. Thorman recalled Navaerette today as “a sorry, sad sack kind of guy” but said he didn’t think Navaerette was a dangerous person. He said that although Navaerette sold drugs, he wasn’t a big-time dealer and only sold enough drugs to support his own habit. Thorman said he was “a little surprised” to learn that Navaerette was paroled only recently. According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Navaerette was paroled on April 8, 2010, but was arrested on an undisclosed matter late last year and was returned to state prison on Dec. 21, 2010.
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