EDINBURG — Juan Manuel Hernandez showed no emotion Friday from the time he was found guilty in the 2017 strangulation death of a 61-year-old woman until deputies handcuffed and took him away.
The jury reached the verdict in just under two hours after a week-long trial that featured testimony from 20 witnesses and included approximately 400 exhibits that resulted in his conviction for strangling Maria Alise Garza.
Testimony and evidence during the 37-year-old’s trial turned bizarre as investigators revealed that Hernandez, who had likely been smoking crack cocaine for several days, removed a knife used to stab Garza and repeatedly slashed himself with it, even carving words like “hate,” “evil” and “love” into his stomach.
A disoriented Hernandez turned up at the McAllen Police Department on Oct. 28, 2017, searching for the victim’s son-in-law, a patrol officer, to fulfill what he says was a promise he made to the victim to tell the man or his wife if anything ever happened to her.
Instead, Hernandez would tell detectives he found Garza’s body wrapped up like a “cocoon” in her vehicle at his apartment at 11 p.m. on Oct. 27, 2017, and moved the woman inside.
He blamed the woman’s abusive ex-boyfriend, Guillermo “Willie” Gonzalez III, who investigators exonerated.
On Friday afternoon, Hernandez testified in his own defense, continuing to deny responsibility.
“I was trying to respect her wishes for me to contact her family members,” he said when asked why he didn’t immediately report the death to police.
Throughout the trial, Assistant Criminal District Attorney Lauren Sepulveda showed numerous inconsistencies and changing stories originating from Hernandez’s explanation of how he came to find Garza’s lifeless body.
While on the stand Friday, Hernandez continued to offer new explanations that hadn’t been given until he was sworn in to testify, including that he took a nap in the vehicle where he found the body and that he drove his drug dealer’s vehicle to the pawnshop to pawn his phone, which he traded with Garza, instead of driving Garza’s vehicle and pawning her phone.
According to Hernandez, the last time he saw Garza was Oct. 25, 2017, when he says she told him he was going to break up with her ex-boyfriend, another new claim offered Friday.
The pair switched phones, according to Hernandez, so that Gonzalez, the ex, couldn’t track her.
However, phone records introduced during the trial dispute that assertion and actually showed Garza and Gonzalez seemed to be reconciling.
Investigators used phone records and the victim’s daughter to identify the phone as belonging to Garza and found a drop of blood from Hernandez on its SIM card.
As for that vehicle, Sepulveda, the prosecutor, pointed out that Hernandez actually owed money to the drug dealer and that a neighbor had taken a photo of the drug dealer’s vehicle at Hernandez’s apartment.
That vehicle is brown as opposed to the color of Garza’s vehicle, which is green.
When investigators found Garza’s body, she was wrapped up in blankets and plastic that were held together by several knots.
On Thursday, a former Texas Department of Public Safety DNA analyst testified that she recovered DNA on one of those knots that came from Hernandez, along with DNA on string found among the blankets that also belonged to him.
“I tried to untie them,” Hernandez said Friday, another new aspect to his story that he told no one until he took the stand Friday.
Sepulveda also pointed out that laces found wrapped around Garza’s body were present throughout the man’s apartment, which he shared with his mother, who had been in California for two weeks.
The prosecutor also pointed out that one of the knots on the blanket used to wrap up the victim was similar to knots the defendant used to tie his pillow cases around his pillows.
In another contradiction, Hernandez said he asked a neighbor for a tarp because he wanted to hide Garza’s vehicle.
During police interviews, Hernandez told officers that he looked for a tarp at 9 p.m. because he wanted to hide the victim’s car in case her ex-boyfriend showed up.
He found the woman’s body in the vehicle at 11 p.m., according to his story.
No evidence was offered during the trial that Hernandez was expecting a visit from Garza on the night of Oct. 27, 2017.
Testimony also showed that Garza, a home healthcare provider who spent a lot of time using her phone, did go to Hernandez’s apartment around 4 p.m. Oct. 26, 2017, to pick him up to run a few errands.
All phone activity from Garza stops around that time and she’s never heard from again until Hernandez goes to the police station on Oct. 28, 2017, to tell police he found her body in the woman’s car parked at his apartment.
Hernandez is the last person to see her alive.
During his testimony, he repeatedly denied killing Garza, but did admit he was a violent man, though only toward males.
Hernandez also claimed that he never called police because his phone wouldn’t charge, but phone records show that on Oct. 27, 2017, he called two pawnshops, his mom, the victim’s roommate and his drug dealer, who he bought $100 worth of crack cocaine from, while Garza’s body was inside his house.
“Not one of those times could you pick up your phone and dial three small numbers: 9-1-1,” Sepulveda said.
Sentencing is scheduled for Sept. 19.