After deliberating for just two hours on Friday, a Merced County Superior Court jury unanimously convicted a Los Banos man of drugging and raping two men in 2012.
Thomas Zavaleta, 25, was found guilty on all nine felony counts of sodomizing, raping and orally copulating two unconscious men in June and August of 2012 on the bathroom floor of his apartment. He was also convicted on a single count of false imprisonment by a jury of seven men and five women before Judge Marc A. Garcia after a two-week trial.
He faces a maximum prison sentence of more than 14 years. Zavaleta showed no emotion as the court clerk read each verdict. Members of his family wept and one woman left the courtroom before all the verdicts were returned. The family declined comment after the hearing.
“I’m happy the victims in this case have some justice,” said Deputy District Attorney Monika Saini. “He is a sexual predator who deserves to be behind bars.”
The prosecution accused Zavaleta of drugging both men with gamma hydroxybutyrate, or GHB, and taking advantage of them while they were unconscious. He took photographs of one of the victims, a 21-year-old man, and made a video recording of his sexual assault on a 24-year-old man. That 17-minute video was seen by the jury during the trial.
Outside the courtroom Friday, jurors, who asked not to be identified, said that video, along with Zavaleta’s own testimony, were two of the key factors in reaching their decisions. Several jurors said they believed Zavaleta enjoyed watching the graphic video in the courtroom and that he smiled several times while it was played.
Jurors also said Zavaleta contradicted himself under questioning from Saini and made numerous incriminating statements to Los Banos police Detective Eduardo Solis, the lead investigator, and other officers.
During the recorded interviews with police, Zavaleta acknowledged both men had been unconscious, but claimed they wanted sex.
“It was simply space and opportunity,” he told detectives on the video. “One thing led to another and it happened. I don’t look at it as rape.”
Saini focused on that statement in both her opening and closing arguments. “‘Space’ and ‘opportunity;’ those are the words of a sexual predator and serial rapist,” Saini argued.
Defense attorney Curtis Rodriguez said the jury’s ruling was “disappointing.” He said he was “not sure how much scrutiny” the jury could have given the evidence in just a little less than two hours and that they should have deliberated longer. He said an appeal is planned.
Rodriguez argued the sex with both men was consensual. He said both the victims were not credible and had changed their stories. The defense particularly focused on the 21-year-old victim, noting that he gave different accounts of how he had learned about Zavaleta’s birth date and admitted he had lied to his mother about drinking alcohol.
Rodriguez said a key defense witness, Salvador Agundez Jr., showed the 21-year-old man was not credible. Agundez testified that he and the 21-year-old man were once involved in a consensual sex act in 2010.
Rodriguez had said Agundez’s testimony showed the 21-year-old man was a closeted homosexual who would go to great lengths to keep his secret. Saini called the argument “ridiculous“ and told jurors that Agundez’s testimony was “not true” and “not relevant.” The jury agreed.
“That (testimony) didn’t have anything to do with what the charges were,” one juror told the defense attorney afterwords. “It was a big waste of time up there.”
A police officer testified Agundez said he had been offered money by Zavaleta’s family to testify for the defense.
However, it was the testimony of GHB expert Trinka Porrata that “made the case,” several jurors said.
Porrata testified that while there was no conclusive physical proof that either victim was drugged, such as toxicology test results, she had no doubt that GHB was used in the attacks, saying “Everything about this is consistent with being drugged.”
Both victims testified to having nearly identical experiences at Zavaleta’s apartment. They described suddenly blacking out and have only “flashes” of memories from those nights. Both said they faded in and out of consciousness, found themselves naked and vomiting on the bathroom floor and felt no control over their own bodies.
The victims do not know each other and have never spoken or even met, according to their testimony.
Judge Garcia ordered a full sentencing review and report on Zavaleta from the Merced County Probation Department. His sentencing hearing is set for Dec. 3.
Staff writer Rob Parsons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 385-2485.