With two witnesses looking on, a Utah man poured gasoline on his mother's head outside her Indio workplace, set her on fire with a lighter, then surrendered and confessed, a prosecutor told jurors Wednesday, but the defendant denied the allegations, claiming he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Israel Ramirez Guardado, 38, of Salt Lake City, is charged with first-degree murder, aggravated mayhem and torture for allegedly lighting his mother on fire in the loading dock area of the Mathis Brothers furniture store on Highway 111 around 5:50 a.m. on Jan. 26, 2018, resulting in second- and third-degree burns over almost half her body.
The murder charge includes a special circumstance allegation of inflicting torture in the commission of a murder, opening him to a possible death sentence if he is convicted.
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In his opening statement, Deputy District Attorney Joshua Hill alleged that after the defendant set fire to his mother -- 61-year-old Francisca Ramirez of North Shore -- he went to the Indio jail to surrender, telling an employee, "I came to turn myself in. I just set a woman on fire."
According to the prosecutor, the victim's co-workers used jackets and sweaters to smother the flames. She initially survived, but developed acute respiratory distress syndrome associated with her burn injuries, leading to her death almost a month later, Hill said.
While in the hospital, she identified her son as her attacker, according to police.
Guardado, who is acting as his own attorney, denied the prosecutor's allegations, saying he was "caught up" in the crime because he was in the wrong place at the time. He said the investigating officers from the Indio Police Department were "filled with hate and bloodlust" against him.
"They closed in on me," he said.
Despite proclaiming his innocence, he ended his opening statement by telling jurors he would be content with whatever decision they ultimately make.
"I'm ready to accept whatever you guys give me," he said. "My hope is not in this life."
Hill said during his opening statement that two co-workers who helped extinguish the fire will testify they heard the defendant and his mother having a loud argument, then saw Guardado dump gasoline out of a red plastic container onto his mother's head. He said they will describe seeing the liquid dripping down the woman's body and then watching the defendant pull out a lighter and set her ablaze.
But on the witness stand, the two witnesses did not specifically point out the defendant as the person they saw light their co-worker on fire.
Matthew Boyd, a lift operator at the furniture store at the time, described seeing "some gentleman" arguing with Ramirez that morning prior to seeing the same man poor gasoline over her head and set her ablaze. He also said he saw the same man at the furniture store two days prior arguing with Ramirez.
"I could not make out the face," he said.
During cross-examination, Guardado hammered down on the lack of positive identification.
"At no point could you positively identify who the person was?" Guardado asked the witness.
"No sir," Boyd responded.
The prosecution contends that Guardado followed his mother to her workplace that morning, planning to set her fire over a disagreement they were having over custody of his oldest daughter. After doing so, he drove to the Indio jail to surrender, Hill said.
Indio police Officer Ryan Kitchens went to the furniture store that morning and described when he first saw the victim.
"She started walking over to my car and appeared to be burned very badly," he said. "There was smoke emanating from her body."
Jurors were shown video footage from the officer's body-worn camera showing the victim walking toward the officer, speaking in Spanish in the darkness of the morning, with her co-workers behind her translating.
Ramirez was taken to JFK Medical Center in Indio, but she was later moved to the burn unit at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton.
Prosecutors said doctors attempted skin grafts and other procedures, but they ultimately proved unsuccessful. Ramirez's organs began to fail and she became unable to absorb oxygen from a ventilator. She was taken off life support and died Feb. 25.
During the trial, the prosecution is expected to introduce as evidence various Facebook posts Guardado made within the same month as the fiery attack.
"Times up... I'm coming for you," the defendant wrote on Jan. 1, 2018, an apparent threat that prosecutors allege was directed at the victim.
On Jan. 19, 2018, he wrote, "I'm back in Kali and I'm ready to do whatever it takes to clear my... keep watching this won't go past Wednesday, just ask my mom," according to court documents.
The trial is expected to last into mid-January. If jurors convict Guardado of murder and the special circumstance allegation, a penalty phase would follow in which the jury would be tasked with recommending either death or life imprisonment without parole.
Guardado, who is being held without bail at the Indio Jail, has no documented prior felony convictions in Riverside County.