July 23, 2014

Merced County man gets 14 years for raping two men

A 25-year-old Merced County man who drugged and raped two men in 2012 has been sentenced to 14 years, eight months in prison.

A 25-year-old Merced County man who drugged and raped two men in 2012 has been sentenced to 14 years, eight months in prison.

Wearing a gray jailhouse jumpsuit, Thomas Zavaleta leaned forward, bowed his head and gave no facial reaction during the hearing late Tuesday afternoon, as Merced Superior Court Judge Marc Garcia handed down the maximum sentence allowable under the nine felony sexual assault counts.

Zavaleta was convicted by a jury in November of raping and orally copulating the two unconscious men in June and August 2012 on the bathroom floor of his Los Banos apartment. He’ll be eligible for parole after serving a little more than five years in prison.

In handing down the sentence, Garcia said the case was one of the most shocking he had ever seen. Zavaleta drugged both men with gamma hydroxybutyrate, or GHB, and sodomized them while they were unconscious. He took photographs of one of the victims, a 21-year-old, and made a video recording of his sexual assault on a 24-year-old. Jurors watched the 17-minute video during trial.

Garcia described Zavaleta as a manipulative predator who clearly sought out his victims. “I cannot emphasize enough how egregious I find this case to be,” Garcia said.

One of the men Zavaleta raped sat quietly in the courtroom during the hearing. The man wrote a statement to Zavaleta, which was read aloud in court by Lisa DeSantis, head of the county’s Victim/Witness Assistance program.

The man said that since the rape he has great difficulty trusting people he has just met and that he missed some school because of the assault’s emotional toll. However, the man also said he has celebrated significant personal victories: He recently graduated from a trade school and said he has a bright career ahead of him.

“You may have thought you have power over me, when you raped me. But not any more,” the man wrote.

The victim said he would like to warn all men to “stay away” from Zavaleta, saying he poses a serious danger to society. “I want the world to know what you are – a rapist and a predator,” the man wrote in the statement.

Despite the gravity of Zavaleta’s crimes, he had no shortage of defenders in court Tuesday. Several of his family members and some friends turned up. Many of them described Zavaleta as a positive role model who was always smiling and and who worked his way up to a shift supervisor job at a fast-food restaurant.

Zavaleta’s adopted mother, Teresa Lopez, said she was “deeply wounded” by the case, saying her husband has been ill since the allegations came to light. “(My son) is a very good person ... and we’re always happy when he’s with us,” Lopez told Judge Garcia through a Spanish interpreter. “Please don’t send him far away, because my heart is so heavy.”

Zavaleta also prepared a lengthy written statement for Tuesday’s hearing, which his attorney Michael Aed summed up in front of the court. Aed said his client expressed remorse in the letter “for what he put his family and the victims through.”

“He wants the court to know that he’s sorry,” Aed told Garcia.

But Deputy District Attorney Monika Saini, the prosecutor in the case, said Zavaleta was merely paying “lip service” to the court in a last-ditch attempt to save himself.

Saini said Zavaleta has no remorse for his crimes and that his conduct in court proves it. “He was enjoying himself during the trial. When the victims were (testifying) he was entertained. He didn’t feel bad, he didn’t feel guilty,” Saini said after the hearing. “He was pleased with himself. When the videos of the assault were being played (in court), he was smiling. That is not someone who is remorseful.”

During the trial Zavaleta’s attorney argued the rapes were “consensual sex,” although that claim did not resonate with jurors. During police interviews Zavaleta also described having sex with the drugged, unconscious men as “simply space and opportunity.” He told detectives on the video that “one thing led to another and it happened. I don’t look at it as rape.”

Zavaleta’s defense attorneys filed a motion for a new trial, claiming prosecutorial misconduct, but Judge Garcia dismissed the request, saying there was no misconduct by the prosecutor and the evidence against their client was significant.

Under the terms of his sentence, Zavaleta must register as a convicted sex offender.

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