Law enforcement authorities continue to search for two people involved in the strangling death of a Herndon woman, even after a jury found Mauricio Cerritoss, 23, of Herndon, guilty of felony murder and robbery.
During his trial last week, Cerritoss named two men as the murderers, but Deputy CommonwealthÕs Attorney James Fisher said the defendant cannot be believed. ÒIÕm not confident itÕs the same two people he named in court,Ó Fisher said. ÒGiven his lies and how incredible he is, we canÕt really base much on what Mr. Cerritoss says about who his two companions were.Ó
Fisher said he is confident, though, that Cerritoss did not act alone in the slaying of Margarita Gonzalez, a 40-year-old Herndon resident who died on the night of Dec. 25, 2003. She was last seen about 6:30 p.m. on Christmas Day by family and friends. She told them she had a ride to the Sterling area to run errands.
Authorities describe the crime as a robbery gone bad. Gonzalez was known to carry cash and jewelry she had bought from a wholesaler in Washington, D.C., authorities said. She had to be killed because she recognized Cerritoss, they said. The womanÕs body was found on Shaw Road in Sterling. The Loudoun County SheriffÕs Department and the Herndon Police Department investigated the case.
A 12-MEMBER JURY found Cerritos guilty Friday and recommended 40 years imprisonment for the murder and 10 years for robbery. Judge James Chamblin will decide whether the sentence will run concurrently or consecutively. Lawyers will return to the court Sept. 13 to schedule the sentencing.
ÒWeÕre very pleased with the juryÕs verdict and their sentence,Ó Fisher said. ÒHopefully this brings some measure of justice to the case in so far as Mr. CerritosÕs involvement.Ó
Gonzalez came from El Salvador to the United States seeking a better life 10 years earlier. Before she died, she has been receiving dialysis three times a week for a kidney ailment and learned her brother was a match for a kidney transplant. He was planning to travel to the United States for the procedure. Gonzalez was buried in her native country earlier this year.
In closing arguments, Fisher and Deputy Public Defender Bonnie Hoffman used props and gestures to make their points. Fisher squeezed his fingers as if they held a rope and gestured as if he was using it on his own neck. Hoffman wore a purple suit as she told the story of a purple dress that didnÕt fit and held up an empty box to drive home her arguments.
Cerritos, with his youthful face and crew cut, could have been mistaken for a teenager. He wore a green and white checkered short sleeve shirt on the final day of his trial.
Fisher held up poster-sized copies of telephone records that he said established the connection between Cerritos and Gonzalez. The lawyer showed the stash of jewelry to the jurors. ÒIt shows this guy is more than unwitting participant,Ó he said. ÒIt shows you Mauricio Cerritos is fully invested in this crime.Ó
He reminded the jury of the witnesses who testified Cerritos sold them jewelry. He presented a pawn shop slip for the jewelry. Then Fisher spoke of CerritosÕs own testimony, the way he kept changing his story about what occurred Christmas night. ÒYou can tell the truth over and over, and it doesnÕt change. You canÕt do this with lies.Ó
Fisher said one version was that Cerritos was approached by two men with a gun and told to help them bury a body in the trunk. Authorities interrupted and reminded Cerritos that they knew he had called her on the telephone that night. Subsequently, Cerritos changed the story and said they forced him to find somebody to rob, so he called Gonzalez. ÒThis becomes a pattern when he is confronted with a fact or something he thinks is a fact, he changes the story.Ó
Cerritos told the authorities he was in a Mercury motor vehicle with the two men and he looked at the back seat, and saw one of the men had put a rope around her neck. Cerritos also said he never saw what happened to the body, because it was dark. Then he changed that story, saying he could not see her, because they told him to get into the car and duck down.
At one point, the defendant said he was tired Christmas and decided to take a ride. He said he was walking toward a red truck. ÒThe Mercury is out of the picture suddenly,Ó Fisher said. In this version, Cerritos said the two men wanted to use his cell phone. At another point, he is tied and then untied. Cerritos denied ever touching the rope used to strangle Gonzalez, but when authorities mention the possibility of DNA, he said he tried to loosen the knot on it.
Assistant CommonwealthÕs Attorney Robert Vernail, who presented the final arguments after Hoffman finished, said the knot on the rope had not been loosened.
HOFFMAN SHOWED the jurors how the evidence had been collected and sealed in bags. She picked up a stack of Polaroid pictures she had taken at the murder scene and displayed blown-up pictures. As she reviewed the evidence, such as the stash of jewelry, she placed each bag into a box about 2 by 3 feet in diameter. Then she drew attention to the missing evidence, a tape recording of CerritosÕs dialogue with law enforcement authorities. ÒWhy didnÕt they take a tape recorder?Ó she asked. ÒWhy did they choose not to preserve that piece of evidence?Ó
After the trial, Fisher said there was a tape recording but Hoffman moved to suppress it and the judge ruled it could not be used as evidence. ÒUnfortunately Miss Hoffman was not being entirely genuine.Ó Hoffman did not return phone calls to her office.
Hoffman said Cerritos worked every day since he arrived in the United States, so robbery was not a motive. If he needed money, why didnÕt he pawn items from his house or ask family and friends. ÒIf I needed money, would I plan such an elaborate scheme?Ó she asked. ÒMost importantly, if I needed the money, why would I leave the rings on her fingers, the diamond stud earrings and watch.Õ
To underscore her points, Hoffman used a blue marker to write key words on a white board, such as an abbreviated form of Òleave jewelry at the scene.Ó
ÒMost important, why did he leave Mrs. Gonzalez like that?Ó she asked. He didnÕt try to dump the body in the woods or cover it up. Instead, she was left in a posed position with her back against a barrier and the rope around his neck in a fashion that looked like she was hanging.
ÒI suggest this is not a robbery gone bad,Ó she said. ÒI wish I could describe to you why somebody would do that. To take the time to do that doesnÕt fit.Ó
To demonstrate this, Hoffman told the story of a purple dress that she received from her mother. The outfit was perfect, just what Hoffman wanted to wear to a wedding. But when she tried it on, the waistline was too tight and the top part didnÕt lie down correctly. She and her mother took it to a tailor, who said he would have to completely redesign the top to get it to lie down. Also, there was not enough cloth in the waist to let out the seams. Disappointed, Hoffman ended up returning the dress to the store. ÒI know it doesnÕt really fit, but it looks perfect,Ó she said. The Commonwealth wants the jurors to believe in the Òpretty packageÓ of evidence even though it doesnÕt quite fit.
Hoffman said the Commonwealth wants the jurors to make a leap of faith. ÒYou never heard him or anyone else say he did it.Ó
ÒWhy would Mauricio lie?Ó Hoffman asked. ÒThis is the crux of the case. É Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction.
ÒWhat you heard was the truth, complicated messy truth.Ó
CerritosÕs DNA was not on the rope, she said.
She slowly took each piece of evidence out of the box until the box was empty. She turned it upside down, claiming that none of the pieces proved his guilt. In the end, what is there to show that Mauricio planned, participated, and plotted? ÒAn empty box,Ó she said, parading it in front of the jurors.
Vernail said the case is not about the absence of a tape recording. He led the jury through the testimony and evidence. ÒSome people are bad liars, period,Ó he said. ÒShe says what you heard is the truth. That canÕt possibly be the truth.Ó
He said it was not a coincidence that Cerritos knew the victim or that her body was found at his work site. Her keys were where he said they would be, Vernail said. The telephone records showed Cerritos called her three times in 23 minutes. ÒHe intended to get Margarita from that apartment when he made those calls,Ó Vernail said. ÒItÕs not about a rush to judgment or Mrs. HoffmanÕs dress. Those things are distractions from the facts of the case.Ó
ÒThe case begins and ends with Mauricio Cerritos. DonÕt get distracted from the case.Ó