Man gets 40-to-life for refuge killing

Judge denies his motion for new trial

vpatton@mercedsunstar.comOctober 16, 2012 

A 45-year-old convicted in a 1998 murder at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge was sentenced to 40 years to life in prison Tuesday.

A jury convicted John Ruben Rivera of second-degree murder in 2010 for shooting 28-year-old Ray Sabala to death at the refuge off Sandy Mush Road.

The sentence was handed down by Judge Brian McCabe, who denied Rivera's motion for a new trial Tuesday morning. Although Rivera was convicted by jurors in 2010, Tuesday's hearing had been postponed for two years, primarily because he switched attorneys after his conviction and filed various motions.

Rivera has maintained throughout court proceedings that he's innocent. Despite the defendant's claims, Sabala's family members reiterated Tuesday they believe jurors convicted the right person.

"We're very happy to finally have closure, to know the person responsible for my son's death is going to be put away," said Rosa Sabala, the victim's 80-year-old mother. "He won't be free to kill again."

Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II, who prosecuted the case, called Rivera a "manipulative con-man" who has no remorse for the murder.

"Johnny Rivera is a legendary manipulator, well-known to law enforcement for years before he was finally convicted of this," Morse said. "We are confident, as is the victim's family, that the right person has been found accountable for Ray Sabala's murder."

Dominic Falasco, Rivera's attorney, couldn't be reached for comment by the Sun-Star's deadline Tuesday.

Bald and covered in prison-style tattoos, Rivera was serving a seven-year prison sentence in an unrelated case when he was arrested in 2009 by Merced County sheriff's detectives for killing Sabala on April 21, 1998.

Jurors heard testimony from a woman who was at the scene when Rivera shot Sabala three times. Rivera was reportedly enraged because Sabala was sleeping with his ex-girlfriend. The defendant was also said to be upset because of a disagreement over a counterfeit cash scheme.

The jury heard testimony from three people, some of whom had served prison time with Rivera, claiming he'd admitted killing Sabala.

Morse said the jury determined Rivera was guilty of second-degree murder because they didn't believe he planned the killing far in advance.

Rivera will be eligible for parole after serving 34 years in prison.

City Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or

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