A judge on Thursday approved a $100,000 settlement to benefit the 14-month-old son of a AAA tow truck driver stabbed to death last year in Pico Rivera while helping the mother of his alleged killer.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Teresa Sanchez-Gordon's action resolves the part of the case the victim's fiancee filed on behalf of herself and her son last September against Cynthia Avila and three relatives of the decedent, Raymond Zabala III.
Stephanie Almanza gave birth to their son less than three months before his father's June 2, 2015, murder.
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Avila's son, Tobias Ruben Cabrera, a 40-year-old transient, has pleaded not guilty to murdering Zabala, who was attacked in the 8400 block of Buhman Avenue while working on a car belonging to Avila.
Cabrera allegedly walked up to the 35-year-old tow truck driver and asked what was going on before stabbing him in the neck, then rode away on a bicycle. Zabala went to a neighboring home to seek help, but died near the crime scene, and his alleged killer was arrested three days later.
Almanza's suit alleges Avila failed to warn Zabala of her son's dangerous and violent disposition. Cabrera, who also is a defendant in the case, was convicted of corporal injury with great bodily injury to a spouse/cohabitant/child's parent in 2001 and possession for sale of a controlled substance in 2011, according to court papers in the criminal case.
Almanza, 28, appeared in court Thursday with her son, Raymond Zabala IV, and told the judge she approved of the plan to keep the money in a trust for the toddler until he is 18 years old. After the hearing, Almanza, who also has an 8-year-old son from a previous relationship, told City News Service that she was pleased with the settlement.
Thursday's action comes two days after Almanza was sued for libel by her late fiance's parents, Raymond Zabala Jr. and Michele Zabala; and his sister, Amanda Zabala. The three allege Almanza falsely accused them, via a Facebook post, of stealing money raised for her and her son, and they are seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.
Tamar Arminak, an attorney for Almanza, criticized the Zabala lawsuit.
"Someone should explain to this family that truth is an absolute defense to libel or slander claims, and my client looks forward to proving that her allegations are protected by the First Amendment and are absolutely true," Arminak said.
According to the Zabala lawsuit, Michele and Amanda Zabala created a GoFundMe account shortly after the victim's death. About $16,000 in donations was raised, and all parties agreed the money should be put into a trust account for his son, who was 2 months old when his father died, the Zabala lawsuit states.
Last July 2, for reasons unknown to the Zabalas, Almanza posted a Facebook message critical of the family, the Zabala lawsuit states.
"They are using their own son/brother Raymond III and grandson Baby Ray for Fraud," the Almanza post stated. "Ray the father has also screwed his own son over with money in the past, I always gave his father the benefit of the doubt, but now realize his true side, all he is after is all the money that is coming in."
Almanza also stated in her posting that Zabala III did not have a good relationship with his parents and that he was raised by his grandparents.
After the posting, several donors requested and received refunds from the GoFundMe account, "significantly diminishing the amount donated," the Zabala suit states.
The Zabalas are willing to provide the donated money to Almanza and her son, but she has refused to accept it, according to their lawsuit.
But in her lawsuit, Almanza — who names as defendants the three Zabala family members as well as Avila and Cabrera — tells a different story.
"As if the horror of Raymond's sudden death was not enough for (Almanza) and her children, Raymond's family compounded the pain and suffering by stealing funds raised for Stephanie" as well as her son with Zabala, the Almanza suit states.
Although Zabala's parents and sister were estranged from him at the time of his death, they acted as if they were loving relatives as they held a comedy night fund-raising event, the Almanza suit says.
"Not a penny of what defendants ... raised was turned over to plaintiffs, despite Stephanie Almanza's repeated requests," her suit alleges.
Zabala's funeral and burial was paid for by the state and his employer, AAA, according to the lawsuit. Amanda Zabala withdrew more than $12,700 from the GoFundMe account in June 2015 and deposited the money in her mother's account, the Almanza suit alleges.
The Zabalas also tried to claim death benefits from the state and AAA by saying they were the decedent's lawful heirs rather than his son, Almanza alleges.
Almanza's suit alleges wrongful death, theft, negligence, both intentional and negligent representation, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress. She is seeking unspecified damages.
The portion of the Almanza case against the Zabalas will go forward, according to Arminak.