Third suspect sentenced to life without parole in Avina murder

One of the four men convicted of the brutal kidnapping and burning of Rosa Avina pleaded with a judge for a new trial Monday, shedding tears and claiming he's innocent.

Alvaro Montanez Reyes, 32, was given a mandated sentence of life without parole for his role in Avina's Oct. 2007 murder. Reyes lured her to a Turlock home, where she was kidnapped and burned alive by his three co-defendants over what authorities say was a pound of stolen pot. A jury convicted Reyes in April of first-degree murder, with special circumstances for kidnapping and a second count of kidnapping.

During Monday's sentencing hearing, Judge John Kirihara turned down Reyes' motion for a new trial, saying jurors deliberated properly and defense attorney Tom Pfeiff did a job that was "more than adequate."

After Kirihara announced his decision, Reyes spoke to the court through a Spanish interpreter, asking for a new trial to prove his innocence. "I want to show I am not the animal, the monster or the murderer that several people think I am," Reyes said.

Reyes also claimed he was upset over Avina's murder. "It pained me a great deal when I found out about the horrible thing they had done to her," Reyes said. "I, more than anyone else, wish that Rosa were alive."

The victim's sister, Maria Avina, sat in court during the hearing, but didn't directly respond to Reyes' words. Still, she gave a sigh of relief after Kirihara turned down Reyes' motion for a new trial. After the hearing, she said "justice was served."

Deputy District Attorney Steven Slocum, the prosecutor in the case, didn't buy Reyes' claims of innocence, saying the defendant did nothing to save Avina from suffering a terrible death, and was a knowing, active participant in her murder. "My response to his statement that he's this gentle person is, where were you, when they were filling the bottle with gasoline and taking Rosa to a field where she was murdered?" he said.

Of the co-defendants in the case, 27-year-old Luis Alberto Valencia and 27-year-old Urbano Ortega were both sentenced to life without parole for murdering Avina. The fourth defendant, Omar Cebrero, 21, was convicted of murder earlier this year and awaits sentencing.

Avina was kidnapped from a home on Clifford Avenue in Turlock the night of Oct. 23, 2007. She was driven to the home by Reyes in his vehicle and targeted by the men, who believed she had stolen a pound of pot.

Authorities say Reyes acted as if he, too, was a victim, getting on all fours when Avina's kidnappers entered the house, although he really knew about the plan to kidnap her. After the kidnapping, Valencia, Cebrero and Ortega drove to a rural area near Ballico and placed Avina in an abandoned boat. Valencia doused her with gasoline from a plastic Coke bottle and one of his partners set her on fire, according to witness testimony from the first trial.

Avina was found alive by a group of farmworkers but died in a Santa Clara Valley Medical Center burn unit.

Managing Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsunstar.com.