Family and friends of Maria Isabel Romero Medina shared an emotional embrace outside a Denton County courtroom Monday after her killer, Ricardo Alfonso Lara-Martinez, was found guilty of murder.
A jury of four men and eight women deliberated the decision for less than an hour after a week of testimony in Judge Bruce McFarling's 362nd Judicial District Court. The sentencing phase of the trial will continue Tuesday morning in McFarling's court. Prosecutors are seeking life in prison, and the jury will determine the punishment.
Lara-Martinez, 27, is accused of killing Medina, his ex-girlfriend and the mother of their now 7-year-old son, on Dec. 12, 2014, after a violent assault at Sanchez Insurance & Tax Services, 1111 E. McKinney St. in Denton. Authorities believe the fight was centered around the boy, Ricardo Alekzander Lara, who had been the subject of a custody battle between the parents.
After the killing, Lara-Martinez fled with the boy to Mexico, where authorities located them in February 2016 following a months-long search. The boy has since been living with Medina's sister in Aubrey. FBI agents returned Lara-Martinez to Denton last June.
One of Medina's four brothers, Gabriel Romero, said it was "beyond frustrating" to wait almost three years for her killer's return to Texas. Wearing a purple shirt with a large photo of Medina's face and the phrase "We are your voice," Romero said he now wants to see remorse from Lara-Martinez.
"We were waiting every moment since it happened to get some justice for her and make sure my nephew was back fine," Romero said. "It was beyond frustrating. But we were willing to wait as much time as needed for [his arrest] to happen the way it needed to happen, and we expect for him to at least apologize or say something to see what kind of remorse he has about it."
Assistant District Attorney Michael Graves, who referred to Medina as Isabel, said he was pleased with how quickly the jury returned with the verdict.
"When [Assistant District Attorney Lindsey Sheguit] and myself met with Isabel's family almost three years ago, we promised them there would be justice for Isabel," he said. "[Tuesday] we hope the jury will provide them the final closure they deserve."
Lara-Martinez's attorney, Derek Adame, said he wanted to reserve comments until after the sentencing.
During the trial, Graves and Sheguit focused on the days leading up to the fight at the tax office in December 2014. Lara-Martinez had been planning to take the boy to Mexico to visit his ailing father — a move that Medina actively tried to prevent as part of her custody battle, prosecutors said.
In the week before the killing, Lara-Martinez, whom friends and family referred to as "Richie," sold his vehicles and other personal property in preparation for his trip to Mexico. Investigators said Lara-Martinez also wired close to $7,000 to his father and arranged a ride.
By Dec. 12, most of the arrangements had been set. Adame claimed Lara-Martinez went to the tax office that day to get his son's birth certificate from Medina. He said Lara-Martinez intended to use the document to send the boy back to the United States.
But according to prosecutors, Lara-Martinez just needed to get Medina's signature to cross the border with the boy. There was no intention of sending him back, they said.
Lara-Martinez arrived at the tax office on Dec. 12 in a friend's pickup. The boy had been asleep in the back seat, according to Lara-Martinez's sworn statement to Denton police investigators.
Lara-Martinez said Medina struck him first, and, based on the woman's injuries, a violent beating ensued. Crime scene photographs showed Medina's body lying face up in a small bathroom in the tax office. Large bruises covered both sides of her face. One of her teeth had been knocked out. And multiple bruises on her neck looked as though she had been strangled, according to a Denton police evidence technician's testimony.
The medical examiner officially ruled Medina's death a homicide by blunt-force trauma and asphyxiation.
"There was a lot of aggression on that scene," Texas Ranger Clair Barnes said during his testimony last week. "Passion would be the word I would use."
Adame went on to use the word "passion" multiple times during the trial, emphasizing that Medina's injuries offered little evidence as to why Lara-Martinez attacked her.
"We don't know if the reason she was attacked was some kind of provocation of her attacker," Adame said last week.
Adame argued that Lara-Martinez recklessly killed the woman in a passionate physical fight in the tax office. Those circumstances would have provided for a less severe charge of manslaughter. But prosecutors focused on Medina's severe bruising around her face and neck, indicating that Lara-Martinez intended to kill her after the fight started.
"When you're looking someone in the eye as you're squeezing the life out of them ... that is not reckless," Graves said during his closing arguments Monday.
Lara-Martinez had already arrived in Muzquiz, Mexico, with the boy by the time investigators found Medina's badly beaten body in the tax office on Dec. 13, 2014. He and the boy boarded a bus for Mexico City just before police started the investigation, according to an arrest affidavit.
After an Amber Alert had been issued for the boy, a man came forward to Denton police and said he had driven Lara-Martinez and his son to Mexico. Investigators then obtained an arrest warrant on a murder charge as the search for Lara-Martinez continued.
Police found him with his son in Mexico in February 2016 and returned the boy to Texas. Then, last June, Denton police investigators took custody of Lara-Martinez at DFW International Airport. Police said when he returned, he admitted to killing the woman.
Friends and family members said Medina had been worried about her safety after breaking up with Lara-Martinez. Leticia Sanchez, owner of Sanchez Insurance and Tax Services, testified that Medina had been late to work because Lara-Martinez followed her. Maria Morales, a close friend and co-worker at the tax office, testified that Lara-Martinez didn't allow her to date other men. And another family member said Lara-Martinez occasionally drove by Medina's home to see if her car was there.
The boy's foster mother and Medina's sister, Rosalba Antonio, said he is doing well. However, she said there will always be a void she can't fill.
"I know I'm never going to be her," Antonio said.
JULIAN GILL can be reached at 940-566-6882.
FEATURED PHOTO: Ricardo Lara-Martinez, middle, listens Monday afternoon during the sentencing phase of his murder trial in 362nd District Court at the Denton County Courts Building. Earlier in the day, Lara-Martinez was found guilty of killing his ex-girlfriend Maria Isabel Romero Medina in December 2014 in Denton. The sentencing phase will continue Tuesday. Jake King/DRC