"I still just can't see him doing something like that," said one Salem resident, who regularly ate at Seņor Carlos, just to banter with Gonzalez.
But, on Nov. 22, Gonzalez, slowly entered Fulton Circuit Court in handcuffs and leg irons, handed a thick Bible over to a relative in the audience, and calmly waited for his chance to plead guilty to Second Degree Murder and receive a 45-year prison sentence.
"Are you entering a plea of guilty because you are, in fact, guilty," asked Judge Tim Weaver.
|"Yes," Gonzalez softly replied.|
Based on his confession to police investigators, Gonzalez was accused of hiring the restaurant's dishwasher, Diego Villonueva, 20, to kill Jesus Meza, a waiter and part owner of the restaurant. Gonzalez told police he did not like Meza and believed Meza was "attempting to cause him to lose his job."
Meza was shot and killed at the restaurant and his body was left in the back of his pickup truck, which was abandoned off Highway 9, near Melbourne.
Later in the court session, Villonueva also pleaded guilty to Murder in the Second Degree and received the same 45-year sentence.
During his sentencing, Gonzalez declined to make a statement regarding his involvement in the murder.
Through an interpreter, Villonueva did make a comment. "I am sorry for what I did," he told the judge.
While 45-years is a long sentence, Gonzalez and Villonueva actually received a big break through the plea agreement, since they were charged with Capital Murder and faced the death penalty.
"I think the plea agreement is fair to everyone," said Prosecutor Don McSpadden. "They will be punished and we avoid a costly death penalty trial. Fulton County has really been (financially) drained by court costs this year."
Is it unusual for a Capital Murder charge to be reduced to Murder in the Second Degree?
"It's part of the plea process. You have two defendants with two sets of attorneys and they are both pointing the finger at each other," McSpadden responded. "With a jury trial, you never know what jurors are going to do. All three men were illegal aliens. Some jurors may not have treated the case as seriously as other murder cases."
McSpadden was unsure how long Gonzalez and Villanueva will have to serve before becoming eligible for parole. They may, perhaps, be parole eligible after serving as little as 25% of their sentences, with good behavior. But McSpadden believes the two will serve many years, and pointed out they will be immediately deported if they ever do receive parole.
County Judge Charles Willett welcomes the plea agreement, since financially strapped Fulton County has paid Izard County more than $50,000 to house the defendants since October of 2010.
In addition to the costs associated with prosecuting Gonzalez and Villanueva, Fulton County had to cover the cost of the July re-trial of another murder defendant, Richard Gordon, of Viola. Costs for the retrial were higher because the case was moved to Stone County, where Gordon was found guilty. The county also had to pay Izard County to house Gordon for the nearly two years it took to decide his case.
"These murder cases have cost the county well over $100,000," said Willett.
While Gonzalez and Villonueva were returned to Izard County after being sentenced, to await transfer to the Department of Corrections, the state is now responsible for the cost of their housing.
Izard County Sheriff Tate Lawrence said they will remain in his jail until space opens up at a state correction facility, but he is in no hurry to see the defendants go.
"If there's such a thing as ideal inmates, they have been no problem whatsoever," said Lawrence.
"You normally think of a murderer as a cold blooded maniac," prosecutor McSpadden said, "but the truth is a murderer around here is usually someone who kills a relative or friend on the spur of the moment. Most really regret what they've done, but that doesn't excuse them for their crime."
While Jesus Meza's loved ones had the right to comment on the plea agreement, no one spoke to mourn Meza's loss or argue for a longer sentence. Prosecutor Dwayne Plumlee told the judge his office had "lost contact with his (Meza's) family. Apparently, they have gone back to Mexico."
A representative of the Mexican Consulate in Little Rock was present for the sentencing. The consulate was monitoring the cases, because Mexico does not recognize the death penalty, and would have protested a death penalty verdict.
Villanueva's attorneys, Katherine Street and Christopher Nebbin declined to comment on the plea agreement as they left the courthouse.
But, when asked if they were pleased a death penalty trial had been avoided, Street smiled and replied, "It got resolved."