Inmate sentenced to life in death of Atwater prison guard

A man convicted of killing an Atwater correctional officer was sentenced Friday to life in prison, the U.S. Justice Department reported.

James Ninete Leon Guerrero, 48, of Guam, pleaded guilty in March to a single count of murder in U.S. District Court in Fresno for his role in the 2008 death of correctional officer Jose Rivera. U.S. District Judge Phillip Pro accepted the plea agreement in March, allowing Guerrero to avoid the death penalty.

Guerrero was formally sentenced Friday by Pro of the District of Nevada.

According to court documents, Guerrero aided and abetted co-defendant Jose Cabrera Sablan in the stabbing death on June 20, 2008.

Rivera, a 22-year-old Navy veteran, was conducting the daily inmate count in the U.S. Penitentiary in Atwater when Sablan attacked him with an 8-inch “homemade shank,” the Justice Department said.

Investigators said Rivera tried to flee but was knocked backward by Sablan and tackled by Guerrero. Guerrero held Rivera down as Sablan stabbed the officer more than 20 times with the makeshift weapon.

The deal Guerrero received angered Rivera’s mother, Terry, who was hoping for the death penalty. She could not be reached for comment Friday.

“The whole system failed my family, my son, me,” Terry Rivera told the Sun-Star in March. “It’s so unfair. I was hoping for justice for my son. This just isn’t right.”

Sablan and Guerrero were indicted for murder on Aug. 14, 2008.

At the time of Rivera’s death, Guerrero was serving a life sentence on a third-strike felony conviction for conspiracy to commit armed bank robbery in Guam, according to a copy of the plea agreement.

Sablan’s case is set for trial on April 6, 2015. If convicted, Sablan will receive the death penalty, the Justice Department has said.

Sablan is serving a life sentence for a murder in Guam, the plea agreement states.

Rivera’s family wanted the death penalty for both men and has said Guerrero’s plea deal “sends a terrible message to other inmates.”