Man convicted of 2 murders in LA County; jury deadlocks on 2 separate killings

Jurors Wednesday convicted a man of murdering his on-again, off-again girlfriend in East Los Angeles and a man in Whittier in crimes that occurred just over a decade apart, but they deadlocked on murder charges involving the killings of two other men.

The eight-woman, four-man panel found Jose "Joe" Luis Saenz, 47, guilty of first-degree murder for the Aug. 5, 1998, killing of Sigreda Fernandez, the mother of his young daughter, along with the Oct. 5, 2008, killing of Oscar Torres in a crime that authorities said was caught on video.

The jury found true the special circumstance allegations of multiple murders and murder during the commission of a kidnapping, rape or sodomy involving Fernandez.

Jurors also convicted Saenz of one count each of kidnapping, forcible rape and sodomy by use of force involving Fernandez, as well as one count of attempted murder involving a man who was wounded in the October 2008 shooting that left Torres dead.

Superior Court Judge Larry Paul Fidler declared a mistrial on the other two murder charges against Saenz -- an alleged gang member -- involving the July 25, 1998, killings of rival gang members Josue Hernandez and Leonardo Ponce, who were killed in Los Angeles' Eastside in what authorities believe was payback for an attack on an associate.

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Deputy District Attorney Heather Steggell called the crimes "horrific," saying that jurors have "gotten to see the evil that lives in some people."

Saenz shot his on-again, off-again girlfriend in the head because he thought she had "talked to the police about something," the prosecutor told the jury, noting that the woman was found in bed with a piece of clothing over her face and that Saenz penned a note to his grandmother on the wall in which he wrote, "I love you grandma with all my heart" and urged her to take care of his young daughter.

That killing occurred 11 days after Hernandez and Ponce were shot to death.

Torres was shot to death just over a decade later outside his home in Whittier after more than $600,000 was seized by police during a traffic stop -- some of it bearing a moniker that was used by Saenz, the deputy district attorney said.

"This video is evidence ... that the victim Oscar Torres ran for his life in his underwear," Steggell told jurors of surveillance video from outside the victim's house. "You can clearly tell it's the defendant."

The prosecutor told jurors during the trial that police had never stopped looking for Saenz, who was featured on billboards across Los Angeles, the local news and on the TV show "America's Most Wanted," and eventually brought back from Mexico in 2012 by a fugitive task force after being found there where he had been living under a different name.

Defense attorney Christopher Chaney urged jurors to evaluate each of the charged crimes separately.

He told jurors in his opening statement that the prosecution's case was built on "discrepancies and outright lies."

Saenz's lawyer told the panel during his closing argument that jurors should expect witnesses to tell the truth, saying, "I'm going to tell you that you did not hear the truth in this trial."

" The prosecution didn't prove up their case. ... The case is built on lies," Chaney said. "I think we exposed them."

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Larry Paul Fidler refused earlier this year to release Saenz on his own recognizance as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Saenz's attorney filed court papers in January, writing in a declaration that his client was "in recovery from the COVID-19 disease" that he contracted while in county jail.

"He relates that, `This is one of the most serious illnesses that he has ever suffered.' He believes that this is the second time he has contracted the virus because the circumstances in the symptoms of the second episode were similar to earlier symptoms that he had exhibited ... He believes that he is in serious danger of losing his life should he contract it another time," Chaney wrote in the declaration, in which he noted that  717 inmates were reported to be in quarantine the day the motion was filed.

The judge also denied a defense motion to allow Saenz to be tried separately on the 2008 killing of Torres.

Saenz is facing life in prison without the possibility of parole, with a sentencing date expected to be set Thursday.

Prosecutors opted under prior Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey's administration not to seek the death penalty against Saenz.

Upon being informed during an April 2016 court hearing of the decision, Saenz responded, "I want them to seek death."

The judge told Saenz then that it was up to the prosecution to decide what punishment to seek.

"You can't force them to seek death," the judge told him then.

Saenz -- who was on the FBI's 10 most wanted list for more than two years -- has been behind bars in Los Angeles County for nearly a decade.

He was arrested in November 2012 by Mexican agents as he left his apartment in Guadalajara, Mexico, the FBI said. He arrived under guard at Los Angeles International Airport before being moved to county jail.