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A 39-year-old man wept and changed his plea to guilty in the 1995 stabbing death of his former girlfriend after hearing his daughter testify to watching him repeatedly stab her mother, who told her “I love you” before dying on the kitchen floor, a prosecutor said Friday. Jose Luis Arreola Cruz, who spent 16 years on the lam in Mexico after the May 21, 1995 fatal stabbing of Gabriella Tello, 19, in East Palo Alto, agreed on Thursday in San Mateo County Superior Court to alter his not guilty plea in exchange for a sentence of 17 years to life in prison. Cruz pleaded not guilty in 2011 to second-degree murder in Tello’s death, but changed his mind following emotional testimony from his daughter Stephanie, now 20, and the weight of the evidence against him, Deputy District Attorney Al Giannini said. “The testimony was enormously powerful and emotional,” Giannini said. “He was crying at times, and he did not want to hear it. I think he knew he would be convicted.”
Cruz likely figured he might get a harsher sentence had the case gone to the jury, and a guilty plea might be more favorable to a future parole board considering his early release from prison, Giannini said. The defendant cried in court as he listened to Stephanie, who was 3 years old at the time of the murder, testify she saw her father argue with Tello and grab her by the hair in the kitchen of Tello’s home. Cruz asked a male friend who was present to hand him a knife, which he used to stab the victim. He then grabbed a second knife after the first one broke during the assault and resumed stabbing Tello, Giannini said. Stephanie said Cruz appeared to “hit” Tello when Cruz was actually thrusting a knife into her, Giannini said. While her mother continued to scream, Cruz pulled Stephanie into a room and closed the door, but she was able to open it and witness Cruz carry on the attack. “Her mother was screaming and then she said (to Stephanie) ‘I love you,'” before dying on the floor, Giannini said. “It was the last thing the girl heard her mother say.”
In addition to Stephanie’s testimony, the jury heard Tello’s two younger sisters, who were 15 and 11 in 1995, tell about watching Cruz routinely commit violent acts on Tello while she babysat them. Her sister Rocio told the court on Monday that she saw Cruz shove Tello down a flight of stairs, slap her and pull her hair. The other sister, Monica, described in court how she had discovered her dead sister and then found Stephanie in the next room. “I don’t think he had any friends in that courtroom by the time he entered his guilty plea,” Giannini said. Had Cruz not changed his plea, Giannini said he would have shown photos taken during Tello’s autopsy. He had told the jury in his opening statement that her head was nearly severed from the stab wounds to her neck and chest. Tello first met Cruz when she was in her mid-teens and gave birth to their daughter at age 16. Cruz was abusive to her from the start and she eventually broke up with him.
After she started seeing another man, Cruz showed up uninvited to a First Communion party she attended on May 21, 1995 and complained to her about her new boyfriend. In a video taken by a guest at the party, Cruz could be seen arguing with Tello. He drove behind her car after she left the party and followed her as she entered her home. While Cruz denied being in Tello’s home, police said that his DNA was found on a beer bottle recovered from the murder scene. The male friend who handed Cruz the knife has never been found, and may have fled to Mexico with Cruz after the murder, Giannini said. Border patrol officers arrested Cruz on March 10, 2011, after he crossed the U.S. border not far from Laredo, Texas, 16 years after the murder. Investigators do not know if Cruz had been back in the United States before that, Giannini said.
Cruz was convicted twice for selling cocaine, and he allegedly also sold heroin, Giannini said. Tello once complained to others that Cruz made her wear a jacket with hidden compartments used to store illegal drugs, Giannini said. Cruz will be sentenced to 17 years to life under sentencing guidelines, including 15 years for second degree murder and one year each for using a knife to kill Tello and having a prior prison sentence, for the sale and possession of cocaine. By law, before Cruz is formally sentenced, Tello’s family members have the right to describe in court how her murder affected their lives. Judge Barbara Mallach set a hearing for Nov. 1, when she is expected to impose the agreed sentence.
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