In taking a moment Friday to remember Sean Aquitania Sr., the judge told the two men convicted in his murder that they may find it difficult to ever forget the dead man’s haunting presence.
The afternoon of Sept. 14, 2007, Aquitania and his 7-month-old baby drove up to visit a friend’s south Sacramento home – right when Donald Ortez-Lucero and Christopher Strong were walking up to rob what authorities later described as a drug house.
Ortez-Lucero pistol-whipped Aquitania, 21, and the gun discharged. Then the bullet struck Sean Aquitania’s namesake son in the head. When the father found out his son had been shot, he rushed after the defendants in attack. Ortez-Lucero then shot him, too, jurors found.
“What character, what strength – so much more than either of you have ever demonstrated to date,” Sacramento Superior Court Judge Patrick Marlette told Ortez-Lucero and Strong at their sentencing hearing for the murders of Aquitania and his baby boy.
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The judge had already announced the prison terms – life in prison without the possibility of parole for the both of them, plus an additional 51 years to life for Ortez-Lucero, and an added 36 years for Strong.
Then he told them what they might come to expect, both in the interior of prison as well as the inner workings of their own minds as they serve their life terms.
“In the time that you spend in prison, there are going to be days when you are really lonely and days when you’re really scared,” Marlette told the pair. “And there probably are going to be days when you get hurt. And when that happens, I hope you remember – maybe not today – but remember back to that day. And maybe that’s Sean Aquitania tapping you on your shoulder again, huh?”
Moments later, sheriff’s deputies walked Ortez-Lucero, 30, and Strong, 29, out of the courtroom while friends and family of the Aquitanias watched in silence.
The day brought to a conclusion a seven-year case where the violent death of a baby – shot as he sat in his car seat, facing backward for safety purposes – horrified the city.
“When we lose babies and children like this, humanity is victimized, which means all of us,” said Louis Alan Dela Cruz, one of Sean Aquitania Jr.’s uncles.
Seven members of the victims’ families spoke to the court, recalling the images and emotions that will forever be burned into their beings.
For Monique Dela Cruz, the baby’s mother and Sean Sr.’s girlfriend, there will always be the image of her holding the limp child in her arms in the hospital and having to make the decision to remove him from the ventilator. For Sarah and Ferdinand Aquitania, it will be the confusion and the disbelief of the first phone calls on the news of the shootings of their son and grandson and their wailing presence in the hospital at the hour of the baby’s death. For all of them, there will be the day of the funeral and the sight of Sean and Sean Jr. being lowered into the ground in the same casket.
At trial, Ortez-Lucero and Strong maintained their innocence, and the Aquitanias’ relatives castigated them Friday for their continued refusal to admit to what jurors on March 18 found to be true: that they confronted Aquitania outside the house on Country Greens Court where they intended to rob a dope dealer; that Ortez-Lucero accidentally shot the baby when he struck Sean Sr. with the gun; that they let Aquitania leave the house to attend to his child and that he stormed back in when he saw what happened to his boy; that Strong told Ortez-Lucero to shoot the man, and that Ortez-Lucero did.
Ortez-Lucero’s DNA was found under Aquitania’s fingernails. A roommate of the two defendants testified that they admitted the whole thing to him afterward.
In a brief statement in court Friday, Ortez-Lucero – without admitting anything – said he wanted to “acknowledge” the pain and suffering of Monique Dela Cruz and of Sarah and Ferdinand Aquitania.
“I couldn’t imagine being in the same room and in close proximity to the person or people I thought murdered my child and grandchild,” Ortez-Lucero said.
Strong did not address the court, but the judge recalled his trial testimony as “attempting to portray yourself as innocent.”
Reading from Strong’s probation report, Marlette said the defendant’s record showed he had been discharged from parole less than a year before the 2007 shootings in which he was armed.
“You spent about three years in (the old California Youth Authority) for assault with a deadly weapon, two counts of robbery and false imprisonment,” Marlette said. The judge told Strong that for everything he said in his trial testimony about wanting to go to American River College and play football and in trying to make himself look like “somebody who contributed to this community in some other ways, your record and the damage you’ve done in this community says that is all a lie.”