Crime

Video showed him fatally stabbing a man in Atwater. Here’s what a judge decided

Sergio Avelar’s family members broke down in tears Wednesday as video surveillance footage showed the 18-year-old collapsing after being fatally stabbed at the Applegate Inn.

The video, compiled from several cameras, showed moments from Jan. 30, 2016, when Eric Cruz Madero, 22, killed the 18-year-old Avelar at the hotel — seemingly because of a middle school feud.

The key evidence led Merced County Superior Court Judge Mark Bacciarini on Wednesday to find Madero guilty of murdering Avelar.

But Bacciarini said during the bench trial he needs more time — another week — to process the case and determine if the murder was premeditated . The distinction can mean the difference between a first or second degree murder charge.

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Eric Cruz Madero, 22, of Merced, is escorted out of a Merced County courtroom after Merced County Judge Mark Bacciarini found him guilty of murder during a court trial Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019, in Merced Superior Court. Vikaas Shanker vshanker@mercedsunstar.com

In an unrelated case, Madero already was sentenced on Aug. 6 to 18 years to life in prison in connection with a jailhouse attempted murder, Merced County Deputy District Attorney Thomas Min said.

He was found guilty by a jury of stabbing an unidentified inmate several times on the direction of Joaquin Flores — the highest ranking gang member in the cell at the time of the attack. Flores was also convicted in that case.

The notoriety from the jailhouse assault led Madero’s attorney, Susan Albertoni, to request a bench trial in the Avelar killing, due to concerns the news might taint the jury pool.

Madero’s convictions will run consecutively, prosecutor Thomas Min said.

Applegate Inn slaying

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Merced County Judge Mark Bacciarini listens to Deputy District Attorney Thomas Min’s opening statements during the murder trial of 22-year-old Merced resident Eric Cruz Madero on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019, in Merced Superior Court. Vikaas Shanker vshanker@mercedsunstar.com

A man in a dark hoodie, who lead Atwater Detective Matthew Vierra identified as Madero, is seen in the video footage following others up a flight of stairs to a walkway outside a hotel room, where there was an ongoing party.

The video shows a brief conversation between several individuals outside the room, including Madero and Avelar.

Madero then lunges at Avelar with several stabbing motions.

Several people restrain Madero after the initial attack and Avelar stumbles back. But after a brief moment, Madero breaks free and attacks Avelar again with a stabbing motion before other partygoers restrain him.

Avelar staggered to the end of the walkway before collapsing at the top of another staircase.

Officer Donald Wisdom of the Atwater Police Department testified he arrived at the scene and was directed by witnesses to a “large pool of blood.” He also found Avelar, who had no pulse.

In February 2016, authorities put an arrest warrant out on Madero, who had fled the country.

Months after the slaying, Madero was located in Mexico and was taken into custody by the U.S. Marshals Service.

Police initially suspected gang overtones in the slaying. But during the ride, Madero told detectives he had a personal feud with Avelar since middle school and wanted to fight him, Vierra testified.

Was the killing premeditated?

Defense attorney Albertoni, argued there was no evidence Madero went to the party to kill Avelar. Thus, he could not have premeditated the attack.

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Merced County Deputy District Attorney Thomas Min hands a trial exhibit to Eric Cruz Madero’s attorney, Susan Albertoni, during the 22-year-old Merced defendant’s murder trial on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019, in Merced Superior Court. Vikaas Shanker vshanker@mercedsunstar.com

Min, the lead prosecutor on the case, acknowledged Madero likely didn’t know Avelar was at the Applegate Inn party.

But Min claimed the second half of the attack, after people restrained Madero, gave Madero enough time to stop and think about his actions.

“That’s when the cold, calculated decision was made to kill quickly,” Min said.

Albertoni argued Madero’s fatal judgments may have been fueled by alcohol. Madero told investigators he was drinking and couldn’t remember what happened that night. “It was a blind, drunk reaction to seeing somebody there,” she said.

Bacciarini denied the claim alcohol may have been a leading factor in the slaying.

Vikaas Shanker is an award-winning reporter covering education, crime and courts for the Merced Sun-Star and Los Banos Enterprise. After growing up in Naperville, Illinois and graduating from the University of Kansas, he reported in several Chicago suburbs before moving to Merced County in 2016.
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