Robert Vasquez Jr. called it a mistake, but a jury said Thursday that his fatal shooting of an innocent woman in Rancho Cordova still amounted to first-degree murder.
Driving around on a late October night three years ago, Vasquez spotted another car whose occupants he thought had been giving him trouble. He chased them down and fired. His bullet struck and killed Madalene Thomas, 49, a Sacramento native who had been living in Reno but was about to move to New York to take care of a sick aunt.
“I’m just happy we got our justice today,” said Taylor Lee, Thomas’ nephew, who was in the car with Thomas the night of the Oct. 26, 2010, shooting on Explorer Drive. “It’s a big relief.”
The Sacramento Superior Court jury that convicted Vasquez needed less than a day of deliberations to reach a decision. It found that Vasquez shot and killed Thomas from a motor vehicle, a special-circumstance allegation that qualifies him for life in prison without parole.
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Judge Marjorie Koller scheduled Vasquez’s sentencing for Nov. 22.
Lee said he and Thomas had been visiting with other relatives, “and then we were leaving, and we were just talking about what we wanted to do the next day. That’s when we noticed someone following us, tailgating us and driving crazy.”
“We didn’t know who it was, so we ended up slowing up, to see who it was, and there’s a male that ended up shooting into the car,” Lee said.
Vasquez fled Sacramento, but authorities caught up with him two days later in Redwood City. Cornered in a hotel, Vasquez jumped out of a third-story window, authorities said. He ended up in the hospital, in critical condition, but he survived extensive head injuries. In court, his shaven head showed huge circular scars where his father said the crushed sections of his skull had been replaced with metal plates.
Defense attorney Chris Cosca filed a trial brief saying that Vasquez had been receiving death threats for months before he shot Madalene Thomas.
“He was followed, told his days were numbered and pressured to leave the neighborhood,” the brief said, by apparent Norteño gang members who “perceived him to be an enemy from Los Angeles.”
The brief said that Vasquez, who lived in Rancho Cordova with his girlfriend and two children, had even been shot at while driving home from work.
“Given the escalating circumstances, he purchased a gun for protection,” Cosca’s brief said.
Then came the night he spotted Thomas’ car. “Tired of living in fear,” the brief said, Vasquez followed Thomas’ car and shot at it when he believed he saw the people inside the other vehicle raise their hands.
“Tragically, the victim was truly innocent and not an actual threat,” the brief said.
Vasquez’ father, Robert Vasquez Sr., said, “I do apologize for Madalene Thomas’ passing,” but he said his son still believes that he was about to be shot that night.
Assistant Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Grippi said, “There is absolutely no evidence of that whatsoever, and the jury rejected that very quickly.”