AUSTIN (KXAN) — After six days of testimony and nearly seven hours of deliberations, a Travis County jury returned a verdict more than five years in the making. George De La Cruz was found guilty Wednesday evening for the murder of Julie Ann Gonzalez, his estranged wife who disappeared in 2010 and has never been found.
A punishment phase will begin Thursday to determine an appropriate sentence for De La Cruz. The newly convicted murderer ever so slightly dropped his head when he heard the word “guilty” from Judge Cliff Brown.
But despite the guilty verdict, Gonzalez’s mother, Sandra Soto, said it brings no closure and gives her no hope that De La Cruz might finally reveal what happened on March 26, 2010, when the 21-year-old mother disappeared.
“George is a coward,” said Soto, her eyes filled with tears after the verdict. “He has always been a coward.”
Prosecutor Gary Cobb said that in his experiences, guilty parties are unlikely to reveal information after a verdict. In the punishment phase, Cobb said the state will seek a sentence of life in prison for De La Cruz and would not entertain deals for a lenient sentence in exchange for information about Gonzalez’s fate.
A guilty verdict brings a sense of justice to the family, but not closure. Soto says it is still not the answer.
“The goal has always been to find Julie; that has always been the goal,” said Soto. “Not to convict George, but to find Julie. This isn’t about George … I need to know where my daughter is.”
Ever since Gonzalez’s disappearance in March 2010, the case has garnered national attention — including an appearance on the Dr. Phil Show. In that episode, De La Cruz failed a polygraph test. The test was not admissible in court, but even without a polygraph, without a body, and without a cause of death, the jury found that circumstantial evidence — aided largely by digital fingerprints — was enough to eliminate reasonable doubt as to De La Cruz’s involvement.
After hearing six days of prosecution witnesses ending with an emotional testimony from Gonzalez’s mother, De La Cruz’s defense team presented no witnesses, deciding instead to rest their case and proceed directly to closing arguments.
De La Cruz is on trial for the murder of his estranged wife who has not been seen since March 26, 2010. With no body and no murder weapon having ever been recovered, the state reminded jurors direct evidence is not required for a murder conviction. Instead, they asked the jury to consider all of the circumstantial evidence which included testimony of a troubled marriage, a new lover, cell phone and internet tracking, and an unexplained trench in De La Cruz’s backyard shed.
“All of those things by themselves don’t mean anything,” said prosecutor Gary Cobb. “But when you bring all that circumstantial evidence in together it means something. You can hide a body, but you cannot hide the truth.”
Continuing Coverage: George De La Cruz Murder Trial
Defense attorneys used their closing argument to emphasize the state’s burden of proving beyond reasonable doubt De La Cruz knowingly and intentionally killed Gonzalez and did it in Travis County. Attorney Robert McCabe said the state’s case had too many holes left to be filled.
“You convict based on facts. Not feelings. Not fantasy,” said McCabe. “When you convict on emotions, feelings, and fantasy, innocent people get convicted.”
Keith Lauerman, also part of the defense, shared with the jury the biggest reasons innocent people end up in prison. Those reasons included emotion, shifting the burden of proof to the defense and adopting the imagination of prosecutors.
“Emotion overrides our logic and the evidence we hear because we want to do something because we are emotional,” said Lauerman. “The reason innocent people get convicted is because juries do not follow the law.”
The defense said De La Cruz’s behavior and the timeline of events on March 26, 2010 make it implausible to think he committed the murder and disposed of the body in an area where it has yet to be found. Testimony heard earlier in the trial said De La Cruz had family at the home the night of Gonzalez’s disappearance.
“He invited people into a crime scene. This horrible crime has happened at his house and George acts completely normal? Cousins come over, they hang out all weekend?” said McCabe skeptically of the state’s narrative. “What patterns of his behavior changed? Are these actions of a murderer? Absolutely not.”
The state’s argument recalled testimony several witnesses gave painting a picture Julie Ann Gonzalez was a devoted mother who would never leave her 2-year-old daughter Layla behind. She was also excited about the future with her new boyfriend, something they believe gave De La Cruz the motivation to kill.
“Who would have known Julie Ann’s choice in a man would prove to be fatal,” said prosecutor Monica Flores.
Evidence heard during the trial suggested someone was accessing Gonzalez’s cell phone after her disappearance and that it was happening in the vicinity of De La Cruz’s home. Other evidence seemed to point to De La Cruz possibly accessing her MySpace page and making postings in an effort to deceive.
“He had the intent to kill Julie Ann the moment that shovel hit the dirt,” said Flores.
De La Cruz’s internet and Xbox usage constituted a significant piece of the state’s case. Witnesses testified the defendant’s video game hobby was a major source of problems in his marriage to Gonzalez. Sandra Soto, Gonzalez’s mother, said he played even while his wife was going through contractions the day their daughter was born.
“Julie is hanging in there, she is in pain and this fool is over there playing on some game console. He could not even turn off the games to watch the birth of his daughter? Come on,” said Cobb.
The love of video games can also be used as evidence of De La Cruz’s role in Gonzalez’s murder according to the state. A wireless expert testified his Xbox usage compared to other days dropped considerably on March 26, 2010, the day Gonzalez disappeared.
“The only thing at that point that would make him put down those games is getting rid of Julie,” said Cobb.
You can read more about the closing argument in more detail with Chris Sadeghi’s live tweets from the courtroom.
Julie Ann Gonzalez’s mother testifies
Shedding tears before she even reached the witness stand, Sandra Soto testified about raising her daughter Julie Ann Gonzalez, the last days before she disappeared, and her hopeful — yet desperate — plea for her daughter’s safe return and answers to what happened five years ago.
Sweet, playful and a beautiful heart is how she described her daughter, who received a scholarship to attend St. Edward’s University. But after becoming pregnant, Gonzalez realized the necessity of a career job and dropped out of school to become a pharmacy tech at Walgreen’s.
Although Soto did not think De La Cruz was the right match for her daughter, she supported the couple and even offered De La Cruz encouragement when the couple went through their separation.
Multiple witnesses have testified that De La Cruz’s video game hobby was the cause of major problems in the marriage.
Witness: Bleeding Julie Ann Gonzalez tried to call for help
According to an inmate in the Travis County Jail sometime in 2013, De La Cruz cried as he described a physical altercation between himself and his estranged wife Julie Ann Gonzalez. The inmate said De La Cruz shared the story with him how Gonzalez fell and hit her head, rendering her bleeding and unconscious at his home.
That inmate, whom the court asked media not to identify, was housed in the same facility with De La Cruz. While on the stand, the inmate said whenever asked about his reasons for being in jail, De La Cruz did not want to speak about it. De La Cruz drew a picture one time, recalled the inmate, which eluded to ‘things women make men do.” But the most intriguing part of the inmate’s testimony was his description of conversation about the fight.
According to the inmate, De La Cruz was “venting” and hesitant to talk about what happened. But he said De La Cruz did share with him the reason for the fight was because of another man Gonzalez had expressed interest in for a romantic relationship.
Cell phone expert
A wireless expert paid by the state to examine the case said connections to Gonzalez’s cell phone showed uncharacteristic activity, and many of the connections following her disappearance came in the vicinity of De La Cruz’s home.
Jim Cook accessed usage records from Gonzalez’s and De La Cruz’s cell phone, as well as De La Cruz’s Xbox system. In a six-month period prior to her disappearance, Gonzalez’s cell phone would show a pattern of arriving at De La Cruz’s home, but leaving within a matter of minutes. On March 26, 2010, the day of her disappearance, Cook testified her phone was tracked in the vicinity of De La Cruz’s home for more than three hours. Additionally, after 10:50 a.m. on that day, there were 27 cell connections from Julie’s phone with 22 coming in the vicinity of De La Cruz’s home.
Later that night around 8 p.m., Gonzalez’s cell phone was tracked in the vicinity of Best Buy — where receipts show De La Cruz made a purchase at the same time, according to Cook.
The day after her disappearance, Cook said Gonzalez’s phone pinged off a tower it had never pinged off of before, and De La Cruz’s phone also pinged off that tower. The tower is in the vicinity of an apartment belonging to De La Cruz’s friend, a place where earlier testimony indicated De La Cruz used Wi-Fi to access Gonzalez’s account.
The state is trying to show De La Cruz may have used Gonzalez’s cell phone and sent texts or made postings about running away to Colorado.