Three found guilty of first degree murder in Los Gatos murder-for-hire case

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Paul Garcia dreamed that one day he would own only Mountain Charley’s Saloon but a full block of downtown Los Gatos. He would marry beautiful bartender Tessa Donnelly and have children together.

But that dream ended Tuesday after a jury found him guilty of masterminding the murder-for-hire of his romantic rival, Mark Achilli, who sold him the bar in the first place. And now the man who once boasted that he was above suspicion and that any interview with police would “last five minutes” faces life in prison.

His accomplices, the middleman and hitman, were also convicted of first-degree murder.

It was Donnelly, prosecutor Jeff Rosen argued, whom Garcia was obsessed with and killed for.

Achilli’s friends and family wept when the verdicts were read Tuesday in a San Jose courtroom. Garcia remained stoic.

“We’ve waited so long for this,” said Achilli’s widow, Michele Achilli, who had been separated from her husband for seven years but still considered him her “best friend.” “Mark can rest in peace now. We know the truth, and it came out.”

The two-month trial that captivated the tony town of Los Gatos was filled with testimony of love and betrayal, computer searches and bank records, and plaintive text messages that went unanswered. There, too, was a trail of evidence discarded at the murder scene by an amateur shooter who kept a killing guide in his Southern California apartment called “Hitman.”

Achilli, 53, was shot eight times in the driveway of his Los Gatos townhouse on March 14, 2008, seven months after he sold Mountain Charley’s and the 180 Restaurant & Lounge to Garcia, who had a mortgage business. Achilli had spent the night before his death with Donnelly.

Minutes after the verdicts were read in San Jose, word spread to downtown Los Gatos. “Justice has been served,” said Carry Nations bartender Candace Fowler.

It took the eight-woman, four-man jury three full days to decide the fates of Garcia, middleman Miguel Chaidez and shooter Lucio Estrada. Garcia and Estrada face life in prison without the possibility of parole, and Chaidez, who confessed to police, may be eligible for parole in 25 years. Judge David Cena will sentence Garcia on Dec. 9; Estrada and Chaidez on Nov. 18.

Garcia, 32, was pale but composed as the clerk read the verdicts shortly before 11 a.m. in the packed courtroom. His defence lawyer, Harry Robertson, had asked Garcia and his parents to show no emotion out of respect for the court and the Achilli family. The only person who broke down on the defendant’s side of the courtroom was Gina Ronzano, Garcia’s ex-fiancee, who had dated Garcia for ten years but — as she testified in court — broke up with him when he started cheating on her with other women, including Donnelly.

Garcia’s family, including his parents and his younger brother, Eric, who still runs Mountain Charley’s, left the courthouse without comment.

Robertson said he believes he has “good grounds” for appeal, including evidence about drugs that Cena wouldn’t allow into court as well as a simmering feud with public defender Charlie Gillan, who represented the shooter and whom Robertson accused of acting like a “second prosecutor” in the case. Robertson had tried to raise reasonable doubt by suggesting that the killing was drug-related and had nothing to do with his client.

While the jury “did everything I asked them to, they came to a different result,” Robertson said outside the courthouse. Although he understood the verdict, he said, “I disagree.”

Rosen, who will take office in January as the newly elected district attorney, said that while he is pleased with the verdict in his final case, “Mark Achilli is still dead and his family and friends still miss him.” He credited the Los Gatos Police Department, especially lead investigators Matt Frisby and Mike D’Antonio, with their exhaustive and meticulous police work that sent them to Southern California and back and included nearly 100 search warrants and the analysis of computer, bank and telephone records.

Achilli’s widow and two of her grown children, Alexandra Achilli and Dave Cohen, broke down in tears when the guilty verdicts were read, as did several Los Gatos bartenders and chefs who were friends of Achilli and had become courtroom regulars.

“I’m glad it came back guilty, but both sides lose,” said Scott Meyer, a handyman who grew up with Achilli in Rockford, Ill., and attended court often. “I lost my best friend, and the Garcias are losing their son. It’s too bad it had to happen.”

The jury members didn’t explain their verdict, but it’s clear that they didn’t believe Garcia, who had no previous record and who a friend said aspired to own a block of downtown Los Gatos. Garcia spent five days on the witness stand insisting on his innocence and explaining away a mountain of evidence. Some of the key evidence included bank records showing he withdrew $9,500 in cash two days before the murder — the exact amount that Garcia’s former bouncer, Daniel Chaidez, testified was the price of the contract killing. Chaidez, who confessed to helping arrange the killing by calling his cousin to find a hit man, testified in return for a sentence of 12 years, eight months. A photo of Achilli standing in front of a “180” logo was found on Garcia’s computer and the computers of Chaidez and his cousin, Miguel Chaidez. A crumpled printout of the same image was found near the murder scene, along with a black sweat jacket, ball cap and gun glove with Estrada’s DNA on it.

Rosen also displayed on a big screen in court a series of text messages that Garcia sent to Donnelly two weeks before Achilli’s death while she was with Achilli on a romantic trip to Las Vegas.

Garcia told the jury that all the evidence against him was coincidental — he needed cash to pay business expenses, not hire a killer — and many of his friends and associates were lying about his ill will toward Achilli. One testified that Garcia told him he wanted Achilli dead and to start planning the funeral. And when it came to his feelings for Donnelly, Garcia said that he was less obsessed with her and more “confused” about why she would want to be with an “old man” instead of having a future with him.

It is uncertain whether any jury members will contact the lawyers to explain their verdict. But for Achilli’s friends and family, many of whom gathered at Carry Nations bar in Los Gatos on Tuesday evening to raise a toast to the memory of their friend, the verdicts were enough for them.

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