Laura McGraw gripped a letter in her left hand as she traveled to her daughter’s grave. The letter was folded four times into a perfect square, just as it was when she received it hours earlier in a Corpus Christi courtroom.
McGraw had slipped her fingers between the creases and peeked at the writing after the bailiff handed it to her. She recognized the penmanship. It was from someone who had been like a son. Now he was her 18-year-old daughter’s killer.
Jacob Gonzalez’s words disgusted and confused Laura. How could you say you loved her when you killed her?
The letter ended with a bold request: Read it to Vivianna Amaya at her grave.
McGraw, wanting to honor her daughter’s deep love for Gonzalez, did as he asked.
Her maroon Ford Focus came to a stop at the grassy edge a few yards from the grave.
McGraw’s face was moist from crying as she took her usual post angled to the left of the headstone. She unfolded the letter and began reading aloud.
McGraw felt a burning in her throat and choked back a sob.
“Hey love I really miss you mami. I’m so sorry how all this happened. I know you know how bad I’m hurting and how much I miss you with all my heart. There’s not a day or night that goes by that I don’t think of you. I’m lost without you. Babey I don’t know even know what to do anymore. I’ve been dealing with this heartache all alone.”
Gonzalez, after a lifetime of neglect and abuse, always felt alone.
“I’m going to be alone for the rest of my life,” he wrote in the letter.
Missing though, is a direct apology for killing Amaya, his girlfriend with a vivacious personality and unruly curls who brightened his life and showered him with the affection he never experienced growing up.
The body of the letter is laced with words that minimize what Gonzalez did: fatally shoot his girlfriend and two others at close range. They reveal the anger of a man who witnessed abuse and experienced neglect himself, but refuses to admit committing domestic violence.
Physical abuse, parental neglect and emotional struggles were documented throughout Gonzalez’s life but went largely untreated. Gonzalez’s story isn’t an isolated case. At least half of the abusers court-ordered to take classes at the Women’s Shelter of South Texas describe untreated childhood neglect and abuse.
The answers to why someone kills the person they love are complex. Each case is unique. Just as not all abusers were abused, not all abused become abusers. Understanding the impacts of abuse and neglect doesn’t serve as an excuse, but rather offers insight into the mind of a killer.
Gonzalez’s innocence was lost to moments of abuse and neglect before he even celebrated his seventh birthday in Corpus Christi. His life was doomed by those untreated abuse and neglect episodes. Amaya’s life was doomed by his escalating violence, victim blaming and continual denials to this day he was an abuser.
They are details in a complicated life story filled with red flags that are common with domestic violence abusers and killers.
Less than a year after dating, Gonzalez, then 21, sealed his fate when he shot Amaya, her aunt and her aunt’s friend in a car underneath the Crosstown Expressway at the Agnes Street exit on May 4, 2011.
Gonzalez was born Oct. 21, 1989, to a teenager still in ninth grade. His mother struggled with parenthood for two years before leaving him with his grandmother, Esther Cervantes, in a one-bedroom home near Sunrise Mall. Thick blankets and pillows spread on the living room floor served as his bed. Photos of him as a child are scarce.
“I couldn’t afford a camera when he was growing up,” Cervantes said. “My babysitter made more than I did.”
“When babies are born, they know their mother’s scent. I wonder if Mijo ever bonded with anybody,” Cervantes said.
Cervantes struggled physically to raise Gonzalez. They rarely did activities together because Cervantes, who had polio, used a wheelchair. He remembers her taking him to Cole Park to play or fish off the pier with his cousins. At Christmastime, she took him on drives along Ocean Drive to see Christmas lights.
By age 5, Gonzalez decided he couldn’t trust anyone after he was molested at a family gathering after a funeral.
He asked a family member to make him something to eat. The man led him through the bedroom, where instead of preparing a meal, he sexually abused him, Gonzalez said. He didn’t talk about his abuse until he was a teenager and spoke to caseworkers.
Gonzalez shared those details during a phone call with the Caller-Times in the fall of 2015.
Domestic violence experts note that feelings of neglect and sexual abuse contribute to the psychology of an abuser.
Gonzalez has few memories of time spent with his father. One of his earliest memories, he said, is of his father hitting him in a fit of rage when Gonzalez was about 5. Gonzalez’s father, who has other children, declined to be interviewed for this article.
“I felt abandoned,” Gonzalez said. “I felt like something was wrong with me.”
Cervantes would try to reassure him. Don’t worry, they love you, she told him.
Gonzalez’s mother, who didn’t return calls requesting an interview, admitted to a grand jury she didn’t see her oldest son often.
“Birthdays? I mean, did you see your son on his birthdays?” a prosecutor asked.
“Sometimes,” she said.
Gonzalez remembers seeing his mother on his seventh birthday at his grandmother’s. Half of her brown hair was pulled back in a bun, and the rest was straight down her back. She wore a white blouse with ruffles around her neck and a short denim skirt, Gonzalez said. Her nails were bright red and costume jewelry adorned her neck and wrists.
Gonzalez thought, “My mom dressed up nice for me.”
She fluttered through the front hallway. After a few minutes, she left in a car, leaving Gonzalez in disbelief and wounded again.
She never wished him, “Happy Birthday.”
Tears filled Gonzalez’s eyes.
Cervantes called her daughter and asked her to come back. She returned to cradle the boy and tell him happy birthday.
Still, Gonzalez knew.
“The day my mom came over and didn’t remember my birthday, I died inside at 7 years old,” Gonzalez said.
Feelings of loneliness and isolation worsened when he started school. Gonzalez walked the half mile to elementary school when he went. He often saw parents kissing their children goodbye in the morning. He began skipping school. In kindergarten, Gonzalez was absent 161 days and present 15 days, according to school records.
When he was about 10 years old, he learned to ride the public bus system.
One time when Gonzalez was 11, he tricked his younger cousin into trading her dollar bill for his two nickels and pennies. The girl proudly told Cervantes she struck a deal with Gonzalez for more money.
As he got older, Gonzalez became aware that his grandmother was trying to fill a role left open by his parents.
“I felt like I was just a burden on my grandma,” Gonzalez said.
By age 13, he’d started smoking marijuana and taking drugs. He said he and his friends broke into homes and cars to steal items they could sell for drugs, which led to juvenile boot camp for a burglary.
There, Gonzalez started having thoughts of suicide. A psychologist he talked to at boot camp documented his feelings of guilt and remorse for things that happened in his childhood, including the sexual assault and physical abuse.
“Jacob requires a stable and consistent environment to assist him in developing healthy patterns of coping,” the psychologist’s report states. “He needs consistent mental health intervention and if not compliant on an outpatient basis, a long-term therapeutic treatment facility or a long-term substance abuse treatment program may be necessary.”
Gonzalez never received that treatment.
Gonzalez went to live with his mother when he was released from boot camp in March 2005. By then, she was married and had three more children.
Not long after Gonzalez moved in, his mother divorced her husband. The family Gonzalez hoped to fit in was split apart.
Gonzalez would cry to his then-girlfriend about his parents. He was quick to anger, the woman later told a grand jury. He seemed to always suspect she was cheating, she said. He called her names and punched and shoved her, she said.
Along with his drug use, Gonzalez’s feelings of jealousy led to name-calling and physical abuse, often the first violent acts of an abuser.
His violence escalated. Twice, he choked his girlfriend, the mother of his son, she told a grand jury.
Gonzalez denies multiple violent episodes. He said he remembers one time he pushed her shoulders harder than he meant to. She bounced off the bed and crashed into the wall. The woman did not make a police report. The Caller-Times spoke with the woman, now 24, but she declined an interview.
Three months after she gave birth to their son in September 2008, the teenagers split when Gonzalez was 18.
The next six months, Gonzalez said she didn’t allow him to visit their son. In July 2009, Gonzalez confronted her. She drove him to his grandmother’s and during an argument, Gonzalez pulled out a pocketknife and tried to stab her, she said. Her hands were cut as she tried to block the blows. He plunged the knife into the console and dashboard near the car radio. She turned the Ford Escape off and got out. Gonzalez got out and ran around the vehicle, stopping to slash the back driver’s side tire.
She jumped back into the driver’s seat and locked the door. She drove to a gas station and called her mom who called police. A warrant was issued for his arrest.
That string of violence, especially the choking, was alarming.
Prosecutors and domestic violence advocates say victims are in peril when violence escalates to choking — so much so Texas law was enhanced in 2009 to make strangulation a third degree felony as opposed to a misdemeanor offense.
“Every time (offenders) put (their) hands around her neck (they’re) practicing homicide and desensitizing both himself and herself to murder,” said Travis County prosecutor Kelsey McKay at a statewide district attorney’s conference in Austin last year.
Gonzalez tried to salvage his life at 20, but his past proved to be a roadblock to a better future.
He started working, bringing some order to his life in 2010. He was a well-liked cook and busboy at a barbacoa restaurant. He still brags that he made the best barbacoa in town with a special, secret blend of seasonings. His bosses praised his work ethic and, knowing his life story, welcomed Gonzalez to their family.
Gonzalez liked to work, and he dreamed of one day owning a business.
“I wanted to be somebody,” he said.
Gonzalez lived about a mile away in a two-story apartment. He was paying child support to his former girlfriend.
“That was one of my best accomplishments,” Gonzalez said.
On his lunch break, he often went to Dairy Queen across the street. The girl behind the register was pretty. She painted shimmery, colorful makeup on her eyelids. She was curvy with a bright smile.
“She had crazy curly hair. It wasn’t just curly, it was like crazy, all over the place curly,” Gonzalez said. “And her eyes — there was something just so memorable about them. They would mesmerize me.”
Shortly after their romance began, Gonzalez found himself in jail in February. Police were looking for a burglar, and Gonzalez matched the suspect description. Police stopped him and ran his name and birth date in their database. They found the assault warrant for his former girlfriend’s attack.
Gonzalez stayed in jail until August. He was found guilty and put on 10 years probation. Amaya was there when he was released.
Gonzalez lost his apartment he loved so much and his belongings. He lost his job. In addition to child support, he now had to pay court fees. He felt like he lost everything.
McGraw allowed Gonzalez to move in with her and Amaya. She charged him rent. McGraw was a manager at a fast-food restaurant. She advocated for Gonzalez to get a job there.
“We brought him into our house, made him our family. Because we felt that he didn’t have anybody but his grandma,” McGraw said.
He was getting support, but he was still depressed.
On Oct. 26, 2010, a caseworker rated Gonzalez “severe” on a major depressive symptom rating scale. A few weeks later, Gonzalez cried throughout a probation session and said he “felt like something bad was going to happen.”
Amaya was always a fighter.
Her mother was addicted to drugs when she learned she was three-months pregnant with Amaya. She weighed less than 3 pounds when she was born premature. Every day, McGraw went to the hospital and looked down at her baby.
“I thought about what I would do if I lost her. I would say I’m going to lose her all because I did the drugs,” McGraw said. “But she fought.”
McGraw hoped Amaya would do better in life than herself. Amaya was bound to be the first in her family to graduate high school.
When she was a teenager, men fawned over Amaya but she wasn’t interested, McGraw said. Having once loved a man who hit her, McGraw cautioned Amaya against abusive relationships.
During shopping trips, Amaya told her mother about men whose attention she had politely declined.
Gonzalez was different.
“From the get-go … she fell in love with him,” McGraw said.
Amaya had his name tattooed on her right forearm. To Gonzalez, that was a sign of love, the kind not even his child’s mother showed him. He had Amaya’s name tattooed on his neck.
But they shared a vice. As a teenager, she started abusing Xanax.
Their good times mostly were when they were under the influence of the drug, Gonzalez said. When sober, they fought. Amaya got upset when he had contact with his son’s mother and Gonzalez believed Amaya was seeing other men. The fights would end when they popped pills and had sex.
At the start of 2011, Gonzalez’s downward spiral is documented in court records and text messages.
Gonzalez missed several probation appointments in February and March of 2011. By early April, text messages between McGraw and Amaya show Gonzalez had been calling in sick to work and owed McGraw rent money.
In April, McGraw said Amaya told her she didn’t want to be with Gonzalez anymore. McGraw told a grand jury that her daughter told her Gonzalez had wanted to do something sexual she didn’t want to do. Gonzalez held a gun to her head and threatened to kill her.
Gonzalez denies this happened.
For a few weeks Gonzalez slept on the streets. For that, Amaya felt guilty.
She worried something would happen, she texted him, and it would be her fault.
“IM HOLDING IN SO MUCH TEARS,” she texted on April 20, 2011.
Gonzalez made plans to get an apartment and wanted her to live with him.
She was sick of the mental, physical and emotional abuse. No way, she said.
I’ve changed, he texted.
“No an abuser will alwayz be an abuser just lk a drug adict will always be a drug adict,” Amaya wrote.
Then she gave in, moved in with him, only to call her mother May 2 to leave. While Gonzalez was asleep, Amaya left. Gonzalez texted her 17 times. This time, she didn’t respond.
Two days after leaving Gonzalez, Amaya reached out to Gonzalez. McGraw still questions why she sent that text message. Her daughter was the fighter, had been since birth. Amaya should have just stayed away.
At about 7 p.m., Amaya, along with her aunt and a friend, went to a gas station where Gonzalez’s ex-girlfriend worked. The ex-girlfriend told a grand jury Amaya threatened her. Amaya texted Gonzalez.
“So u been talking to your baby mama ha,” she texted. She told Gonzalez she was going to hurt the woman, but her aunt stopped her. Then Amaya asked Gonzalez for Xanax, a prescription drug that when abused becomes a sedative. He told her he could give her some if the women picked him up in front of apartments near Ayers Street.
What happened in the sedan can’t be verified. There are no text messages or survivors to corroborate Gonzalez’s story. He never told police or his lawyers why he shot the women. Gonzalez told the Caller-Times nearly a year ago he killed the women because they threatened to go to his ex-girlfriend’s home and harm their son.
In a police-recorded video after the shooting, he denied being the shooter. He had their blood on his white tennis shoes.
Gonzalez said noise and chaos stressed him out in the car. Amaya told him he was going to lose his son. What do you mean I’m going to lose my son? he asked. Who is going to hurt my son?
One of the women in the front seat shouted over him.
“You got the pills or not?” Gonzalez heard.
Gonzalez and Amaya kept arguing. Shouts continued from the front seat. Gonzalez said he felt his mind blank and his vision was only black and red. He reached for his gun, which he said Amaya had in her bag.
From the driver’s seat, Virginia Rodela likely didn’t see the gun before the shot. It struck her right shoulder before piercing her skull. Gonzalez then shot into the left side of Maricella Ybarra’s skull.
Finally, he shot Amaya through the left side of her head, above her ear, and felt the car crash. The car was quiet.
He looked at the woman who once smiled back at him adoringly. Her body was still. Then he ran from the car leaving the women behind. It had come to a stop after hitting the Cesar Chavez Memorial Parkway sign under the Crosstown Expressway at the Agnes Street exit.
A few blocks away, a bystander tackled him to the ground. Neighbors held him until police came. Officers searched a nylon bag Gonzalez had around his waist and found a Rossi .38 special caliber revolver with three fired shell casings.
Rodela was pronounced dead at the scene. Amaya and her aunt were taken to Christus Spohn Hospital Memorial. When the doctors told her mother that Amaya was the last to die, McGraw thought back to when Amaya was hospitalized as a baby.
“All her life she was fighting to make it in this world,” she said.
From the hospital, McGraw called Gonzalez over and over. It never crossed her mind at that very moment police were interviewing him at the station.
That night, Gonzalez was charged with capital murder.
Gonzalez said his family urged him to take a plea deal for life in prison to avoid the death penalty. He said they told them they would be there for him. His son’s mother told him she would take the boy to visit him in prison. Gonzalez took the deal.
From the Allred Prison Unit in Wichita Falls, on the edge of the border that divides Texas from Oklahoma, Gonzalez gets an occasional letter from his grandmother. His family doesn’t visit. His ex-girlfriend stopped taking his son.
The only person to visit him in three years was a Caller-Times reporter. Guards led Gonzalez through a narrow hallway to the 6 foot by 7 foot slot where prisoners sit on the other side of Plexiglas and talk into a telephone. At the end of an hourlong interview, the reporter was escorted out first.
Gonzalez stayed behind. Alone.