FLORENCE — Three Pinal County jail inmates were found guilty Tuesday of assaulting and conspiring to kill a jail guard.
The jury returned to Judge Kevin White’s courtroom after several hours of deliberation. It unanimously concluded Robert Villalobos, 30, Santiago Sanchez, 27, and Mauricio Moraga, 26, conspired together to commit first-degree murder.
The incident happened on Sept. 7, 2016, inside one of the jail’s housing units. According to prosecutors, Villalobos and Sanchez stabbed Lt. Sergio Antolin repeatedly with sharp weapons they made themselves.
“The evidence in this case is overwhelming,” said Deputy Pinal County Attorney Patrick Johnson.
Video footage documenting the assault was repeatedly played for the jury throughout the trial. Witnesses identified Villalobos and Sanchez as the assailants seen stabbing Antolin on camera.
The jury was also shown photographs of the defendants’ bed frames. Small pieces of the frames were missing, suggesting this was the material they used to make their weapons.
The prosecutor told the jury during closing arguments how the three defendants methodically planned their attack by observing the routes jail officers make during security checks.
But the defendants didn’t account for the “strength and courage” of their target, Johnson said. Antolin survived the incident and would testify against the defendants during the trial.
The three defense attorneys attempted to persuade the jury there was no convincing evidence of any plan to kill Antolin.
“It just doesn’t exist,” said Matthew Long, who represented Moraga. The defense attorney reminded the jury that no motive was established by the state for Moraga to take part in this conspiracy.
Long further argued the location of the victim’s wounds suggest the defendants intended to hurt rather than kill Antonin. The victim was stabbed 21 times in the back, not in the neck or face as pointed out by the defense.
Johnson said if Moraga hadn’t kept another officer from trying to help Antolin, then the victim likely could have been saved from 10 of his stab wounds.
John Schaus, who represented Sanchez, highlighted to the jury how DNA evidence retrieved from the homemade weapons was “inconclusive” in being traced back to the defendants.
The defense’s arguments appeared to not sway the jury, as it found the three defendants guilty on all 14 counts charged against them. They were also found guilty of multiple assault charges and Villalobos and Sanchez were each found guilty of promoting prison contraband.
The three defendants were each in the custody of the Pinal County jail at the time of the stabbing, awaiting resolution of their cases in Superior Court.
Moraga and Sanchez have since been sentenced to the state Department of Corrections for crimes committed in Casa Grande. Villalobos is awaiting trial for an attempted murder charge allegedly committed in Superior four years ago.
Moraga was given a 14-year sentence after he pleaded guilty last year to manslaughter. The defendant was driving a truck that crashed into a ditch near Trekell Road and Val Vista Boulevard. One of his passengers, 19-year-old Kimberly Armenta, died at the scene.
Sanchez had finished serving a four-year prison sentence in 2015 when he violated probation and was sent back to the Pinal County jail.
He was convicted in 2011 of a drive-by shooting and aggravated assault. His probation was revoked after committing a weapons violation and a judge sentenced him to 12.5 years at DOC.
The jury will be asked to return Wednesday for the aggravation portion of the trial.