Brittany Dutra, a 21-year-old mother to two young twin girls, was stabbed to death while watching television with friends more than a year ago for reasons authorities fear they may never know.
“It’s one of the weirdest cases I’ve ever investigated because there just doesn’t appear to have been any type of motive,” Merced police Detective Joe Deliman said Thursday.
Oscar Saenz, 31, was convicted of first-degree murder Thursday afternoon in the case by a Merced Superior Court jury after a nearly two-week trial before Judge Ronald W. Hansen.
Saenz faces 26 years to life in prison at his sentencing hearing Sept. 15, according to attorneys in the case. He remains in custody at the Merced County jail.
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Dutra was stabbed to death about 3 a.m. July 9, 2015, in an apartment in the 2300 block of K Street in Merced. Dutra, Saenz and others were watching television.
“He (Saenz) stands up and stabs her in front of everyone,” said Ilia McKinney, the deputy district attorney who prosecuted the case.
Witnesses described the weapon as a “Rambo”-style knife, possibly a hunting knife. It never was recovered by authorities.
“It was utterly pointless and completely tragic,” McKinney said. “There was no reason for it and she had two young twins and a lot of people and family who really loved her deeply.”
Saenz was arrested within hours of the violence after officers spotted him near Lopes Avenue in Merced. Saenz pleaded not guilty to killing Dutra. He acknowledged to police he was in the apartment before Dutra was killed but said he left before she was stabbed, authorities said.
McKinney praised the Merced police investigation led by Deliman. She said Deliman located additional witnesses who spoke with Saenz hours after the killing who said he was seeking information about the case.
“He wanted to know if there was a warrant out for him,” McKinney said.
Saenz’s attorney, Tom Pfeiff, argued that two key witnesses in the case fabricated details and “framed” Saenz. Jurors, however, deliberated for less than a full hour before handing down the guilty verdict. Pfeiff said he was “very disappointed” with the verdict. An appeal is expected.
“With a potential life sentence, an appeal is a certainty,” Pfeiff said outside the courthouse Thursday.
Police said Saenz had been “stressed” and “depressed” in the days leading up to the violence after his three children were taken away by Child Protective Services. Investigators also said Saenz had been trying to kick a drug habit.
“But we just don’t know what influence that may have had, or if it had anything to do with it,” Deliman said.
Prosecutors said there was no evidence of any drug use at the apartment that night.
Family members have described Dutra, who graduated from Golden Valley High School in 2011, as a “beautiful soul” who cared deeply for her young daughters.
McKinney and Deliman said they hoped Thursday’s verdict would bring some measure of comfort to Dutra’s family.
“It doesn’t bring Brittany back,” McKinney said. “But I hope it’s helpful for the family.”
Rob Parsons: 209-385-2482