It was just a spilled drink, Carlito Montoya said he tells himself now.
His reaction that New Year’s Eve at an Old Sacramento tavern more than three years ago – shooting and killing two men at close range and wounding two others, ending lives and shattering families – led a Sacramento Superior Court judge to sentence him and friend Charles Fowler-Scholz on Thursday to multiple life terms in state prison.
A fight over the drink that spilled on Fowler-Scholz’s wife, Amber Scholz, preceded gunshots that brought a brutal end to the revelry at Sports Corner Café on Dec. 31, 2012, leaving two men dead on the barroom floor that night.
Judge Cheryl Chun Meegan sentenced Montoya, 25, to two life terms without the possibility of parole on first-degree murder charges for the point-blank shootings of bar security guard Daniel Ferrier and Gabriel Cordova. The former tried to stop the fight, the latter was a father of three who was celebrating New Year’s Eve with friends and his wife, Christina Cordova.
Meegan called the killings “horrific” even judged against the violent life the Oakland-based gang member lived.
In statements read to the court, family members of Ferrier and Cordova remembered their loved ones and recounted their loss. Ferrier’s brother-in-law Wesley Seymour said Montoya “killed a piece of each and every one of us,” when he pulled the trigger, ending the life of a man “we all admired, loved and strived to be like.”
“They took away my best friend,” Christina Cordova said in a letter. “We lost a very important person in our life. I am physically and mentally disabled because of him. Losing Gabe tore our family apart.”
She, too, was shot and wounded in the chaos as was security guard Stephen Walton, who testified at the months-long trial that he managed to return Montoya’s fire and helped police subdue Montoya.
Maria Luna, Gabriel Cordova’s mother, told the court she would not “address the act of cowardice and disregard to human kindness … by these killers.”
Instead, she read a poem dedicated to her son’s memory. Its final words: “I know you are everywhere now/Because our soul will never pass.”
Outside the courtroom, Luna sat briefly with Fowler-Scholz’s parents.
“I gave my condolences to his mother,” Luna said. “My son is in Glory, but she’s the one who’s going to suffer. She’s going to be suffering for him.”
Attorneys on both sides of the case argued that Amber Scholz goaded the men into confronting Cordova over the jostled drink before slipping out the bar’s front door when the shooting started. On Thursday, Judge Meegan again set the scene from the bench
“It was New Year’s Eve. People were gathered in hopes of celebrating,” Meegan said. “Instead, on this night, Amber Scholz ignited a fire of violence that led to death.”
Amber Scholz faces sentencing June 24 after pleading no contest to an assault charge connected to the killings.
For Fowler-Scholz, 37, the crimes were his third strike. He did not fire a weapon, but was sentenced to consecutive 45 years-to-life terms on two counts of second-degree murder, plus terms of 27 years to life and 25 years to life on charges of attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon connected to the shootings – terms tripled by three-strikes sentencing guidelines.
Both men will die in prison.
Fowler-Scholz and Montoya apologized to their victims’ families in letters read by their attorneys.
“I wish I could have rewound time. I would have made a different choice,” Montoya wrote of killing Cordova in a statement titled, “A Letter of Apology.”
“‘It was just a spilled drink,’ I told myself,” Montoya’s letter continued. “He didn’t deserve none of this to happen.”
Weeks earlier, as he awaited sentencing at Sacramento County Main Jail, Fowler-Scholz maintained he was facing a lifetime in prison for crimes he did not commit.
“I put myself here by a fight. I understand that. I should be charged on what I done. I’m guilty of a fistfight,” he said in a jailhouse interview with The Bee after his April conviction, as he clutched a beaten manila folder stuffed with sheaths of court briefs. “I’m getting life for something I didn’t do. Everybody thinks I’m some kind of monster but I didn’t come (to the bar) with any intent. I’m not a killer, but I’m being portrayed as a killer.”
Fowler-Scholz’s attorney, Olaf Hedberg, reprised the argument Thursday, asking Meegan to sentence Fowler-Scholz to life with the possibility of parole after 15 years. Meegan denied Hedberg’s motion.
After the hearing, Hedberg said Fowler-Scholz did not know Montoya was armed and could not have foreseen the bloodshed to come, placing blame squarely on Montoya and Amber Scholz.
“He’s as shocked and horrified by this as anybody else,” Hedberg said. “But for Amber, this would never have happened.”
But prosecuting Sacramento County Deputy District Attorney Anthony Ortiz said Fowler-Scholz needed to be held to account for the long history of gun crimes and immersion in the Norteño gang culture that he argued set the stage for the violence that befell the bar that New Year’s Eve night.
“The crime clearly falls within the spirit of the three-strikes law,” Ortiz said following the hearing. “His relationship with Montoya, with gangs, guns and gun usage shows inevitably that this would end up with murder.”