A twice-convicted murderer facing the death penalty for shooting a man in a dispute over a stolen computer also threatened to harm a deputy district attorney, who testified today that he feared being attacked and was given 24-hour protection.
"I did take precautions, but I was more worried about what might happen to my family," said veteran Riverside County prosecutor Mike Hestrin. "My wife and stepdaughter were absolutely terrified."
Hestrin, 42, was among the last prosecution witnesses summoned to testify in the penalty trial of Robert Gonzales Castro, who was convicted last month of first-degree murder. Jurors also found true a special circumstance allegation of killing in the course of a robbery and having a prior murder conviction.
The District Attorney's Office is seeking the death penalty for Castro, who gunned down Juan Genaro Gonzalez on May 18, 2008, during an argument that turned physical on a Moreno Valley street.
Castro became furious when Gonzalez refused to purchase a stolen laptop computer that the victim had indicated he wanted, prosecutors said. The defendant, a self-admitted member of a Pomona gang, drew a 9mm handgun and shot Gonzalez in the heart, killing him instantly, according to testimony.
Hestrin, a candidate for district attorney and a homicide prosecutor for nearly a dozen years, was assigned to handle the Castro case until earlier this year, when he was placed in the D.A.'s robbery division.
The Temecula resident testified that in August 2012, he received a letter from the Southwest Detention Center in Murrieta that contained two photos of an inmate who had been slashed repeatedly in the face.
Below one of the images was a message. "It said, 'You are next, Michael,"' Hestrin testified.
"What did you take that to mean?" asked Deputy District Attorney Michael Kersse.
"That Mr. Castro wanted me to look just like the man whose face had been sliced up," Hestrin said.
He testified that correctional deputies intercepted the letter immediately after Castro dropped it in the jail's outgoing mail, so he had been forewarned it was coming and wanted for evidence. He identified the victim in the slashing attack as a man arrested for domestic assault who had been placed in the same cell block as Castro.
According to Hestrin, the D.A.'s Threat Assessment Team initiated an investigation and decided to assign him a protective detail around the clock for more than a week.
"I had reason to believe my life was in danger, my family's life was in danger," Hestrin said. "I had someone at my house 24 hours. I had an armed guard traveling with me."
He said that he took precautions, but was in no way "dissuaded" from continuing with his work.
"This was the job I signed up for, and I was going to do it wholeheartedly," the prosecutor said. "It was difficult for my family. They didn't sign up for this."
Hestrin said one of his foremost concerns was that one of Castro's Mexican Mafia associates would attack him, but there was never an attempt.
Castro, 35, was convicted and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in 2010 for the murder of 58-year-old Ronald Sexton of Fontana. The victim interrupted a burglary at his house and was gunned down by Castro and another man, who was also convicted. The attack happened three days after Gonzalez was killed.
The current penalty trial is expected to wrap up next week. If jurors don't unanimously decide to recommend a death sentence, Castro will be sentenced to life in prison without parole. --Paul Young, City News Service