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Just a few moments after the verdict was announced, a Bernalillo County sheriff’s deputy closed the door to a small room where Fabian Gonzales was watching the end of his trial – shutting the door on the latest chapter of one of the most gruesome and far-reaching child abuse cases in Albuquerque history.
Jurors on Monday found Gonzales, 37, guilty of child abuse resulting in death and all the other charges he was facing in connection with the slaying of 10-year-old Victoria Martens in 2016.
In tears, Victoria Martens’ grandparents embraced the case’s lead investigator just after the verdict was read. Her relatives declined to comment after the proceedings.
Testimony in the trial against Gonzales began July 13 in 2nd Judicial District Court, with Judge Cindy Leos presiding.
The jury of 10 women and two men deliberated for just about three hours, quickly sifting through more than two weeks of testimony before reaching the decision.
Gonzales, who was diagnosed with COVID-19 in the final stages of his trial, returned to court Monday for the verdict. He appeared in a small room behind the defense table, where plexiglass separated him from the rest of the courtroom. He had attended the last two days of his trial virtually.
Wearing a dark polo, a mask and glasses, he had no noticeable reaction as the guilty findings were relayed. He was taken into custody immediately. Gonzales is facing between 18 and 40½ years in prison, said Chief Deputy District Attorney James Grayson. Deputy District Attorney Greer Staley said prosecutors will seek the maximum sentence.
The sentencing hearing will be in two to three months, Leos said in court.
Prosecutors argued that although Gonzales didn’t kill Victoria, he set in motion a series of events that created a dangerous environment that ultimately led to her death. Gonzales was dating Michelle Martens, Victoria’s mother, and had recently moved into their Northwest Albuquerque apartment.
“The defendant set the stage for her death to occur. And he turned her home into a dangerous place,” Staley said during her closing argument. “Her world was changing as soon as he set foot in her apartment.”
Stephen Aarons, Gonzales’ attorney, in his closing argument asked the jury not to become overcome with emotion over Victoria’s horrific death.
The young girl was killed in her apartment on her 10th birthday, and then her body was mutilated and dismembered in an effort to conceal the crime, prosecutors said.
Gonzales had allowed his cousin, Jessica Kelley, to stay at the Martens’ apartment shortly after Kelley was released from prison. Police during the course of a years-long investigation determined that Martens and Gonzales were not at the home when Victoria was killed, but they arrived later that night. Kelley was at the apartment when Victoria was killed.
“I would tell you, this is not a complicated case, it’s actually fairly easy to solve. But emotion can overwhelm that,” Aarons said during his closing argument. “There is an urge to flush anyone and everyone remotely connected down the toilet.”
Aarons said they will appeal the verdict.
“It’s hard to get past your emotions in a case like this,” he said outside the courtroom. “And I think that those emotions overwhelmed this jury.”
Original charges of murder and rape against Gonzales were dropped after it was determined he was not at the apartment when Victoria was killed. Instead, he was convicted of child abuse, recklessly caused, resulting in the death of a child under 12, seven counts of tampering with evidence and a single count of conspiracy to tamper with evidence.
“We wanted the right charges, the charges that were what this defendant did,” Grayson said. “We amended the charges down to reckless child abuse, resulting in death. And then once we did that we did litigate the validity of that charge … ultimately, just last week, Judge Leos ruled the charge should go to the jury.”
Prosecutors said Victoria was killed either by an unknown man, possibly because the man had a vendetta against Gonzales, or by Kelley, who was using methamphetamine and acting paranoid before Gonzales and Martens left Victoria alone with Kelley. Kelley told the jury a man entered the apartment and killed Victoria, then told her to clean up the scene.
Gonzales’ attorneys argued there was no unknown man, that Kelley killed Victoria and then acted alone to try to cover up the crime.
“The person who killed little Victoria made a plea bargain and testified falsely in this case. And, she’s probably laughing now at the fact that the state of New Mexico accepted her version of what happened,” Aarons said. “I thought we had disproved that, but I think emotions ruled the day.”
A man identified as John Doe has been indicted on child abuse, intentionally caused, resulting in the death of a child under 12, as well as a murder charge, based on DNA evidence found in the case.
“It’s still an open investigation with the Albuquerque Police Department. So we’re hopeful that we’re able to find that person. And if that person is found and identified, then we will proceed with prosecuting that person as well,” Staley said.
Throughout the course of the trial, Albuquerque police detectives testified that Victoria’s homicide was one of the largest and most complex cases in the department’s history. Staley and Grayson said the case also received an abundance of resources from the District Attorney’s Office. They gave an interview Monday afternoon from a room in the DA’s offices that for years has been dedicated to building the case against Gonzales.
Despite that, there are still unanswered questions about what happened to Victoria the night of her death, and some of those questions, such as who killed her, weren’t answered in the trial.
“Your job here today is to determine if that defendant set this whole thing in motion,” Staley said in her closing argument. “If he created this transformation of Victoria’s world into this place where something terrible was going to happen, and it was obvious something’s going to happen.”
Kelley earlier pleaded guilty to child abuse and other charges in the case and was sentenced to 44 years in prison, though she will be eligible for parole in half that time. Martens pleaded guilty to a child abuse charge in an agreement that calls for her to be sentenced to 12 to 15 years in prison. Her sentencing hearing hasn’t been scheduled.
As for Monday’s verdict, the judge initially told those waiting for the jury to come back to take a 90-minute lunch break. But within minutes, jurors informed the judge they had already completed their deliberations. The judge then read the verdict while Gonzales stood in the adjoining room.
Gonzales’ defense team was taken aback by how quickly the jury reached its decision.
“There was over 500 exhibits and three weeks of testimony. It’s shocking that they came back so quickly, but it’s clear all 12 were ready from the moment they walked in there,” Aarons said. “They knew what they wanted to do. And you know, I understand their feelings.”