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Man accused of 2013 murder found not guilty; Family, prosecutors struck with disappointment

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Family members of Stoarmy Joel Vargas, who was murdered in 2013, stand stunned in disappointment after Chaves County District Judge Freddie J. Romero read the jury's verdict for the Steve Guardado v. State of New Mexico trial. Guardado, left, was acquitted of murder in the first degree Wednesday evening. (Trevier Gonzalez Photo Illustration)

After less than an hour and a half of deliberation, the 12-person jury reached a verdict for the State of New Mexico v. Steve Guardado trial Wednesday evening.

Gasps erupted from the Vargas family in the District Courtroom in Roswell as 5th District Judge Freddie J. Romero read that Guardado was found not guilty of first-degree murder.

“And y’all call this justice? Justice for all?” A family member of Stoarmy Joel Vargas questioned as she walked out of the courtroom. “He’s going to kill again.”

Gary Mitchell, Guardado’s defense attorney, simply said the jury “did the right thing.”

“I’m pleased. Very, very pleased,” Mitchell told the Daily Record. “And I thank them.”

Guardado, who had been accused of murdering Vargas on Oct. 25, 2013, allegedly in retaliation after losing his friend, Victor Oaxaca just two days earlier through the means of a separate homicide, was acquitted of the felony charge and was set to be released.

Deputy district attorneys Michael Thomas and Kristen Cartwright declined to comment.

Final testimonies

Earlier Wednesday morning and before the jury arrived at a verdict, the Roswell Police Department’s Albert Aldana sat at the stand, prepared for additional questions related to his investigation of the homicide of 22-year-old Vargas.

However, neither the defense or prosecution had any further questions for Aldana.

On Tuesday, Aldana told the court before he had arrived at the scene in the 600 block of East Cherry Oct. 25, 2013, it was beginning to rain.

Aldana stated the firearm, which had been described to him as a silver handgun, was never recovered from the incident.

Previously in court, Roswell police officer Christopher King stated he had seen a black Chrysler with a sticker on its back on three separate occasions within a short period of time while he was blocking traffic at the corner of North Orchard Avenue and East Cherry Street the night Vargas was shot.

King said he tried to provide dispatch with the vehicle’s license plate number but was originally incorrect. He then clarified with the court he later called dispatch on his personal cellphone with the correct license plate.

The attorneys stipulated to members of the jury they were not able to locate King’s personal phone call.

On Wednesday, the defense called in three witnesses: Guardado’s big sister from Sacramento, California; Guardado’s wife, Tenay Relei; and Clifton Frosch, a retired RPD officer who also was called to the 2013 scene.

Guardado’s sister said her brother had been “making small strides” relocating back to California, where he was originally from. The sister stated she had even attempted to get Guardado a job with her husband’s employer.

Mitchell questioned Guardado’s sister about the text messages between her and Guardado, where she had expressed a sense of concern. She replied, saying she had been messaging Guardado due to him continually postponing his relocation to California.

Relei, Guardado’s wife, said Victor Oaxaca was her husband’s friend, even regarding him as “Steve’s only friend.”

She clarified that her father, Troy Relei, and Janet Borba had a relationship after Borba’s father had passed away, explaining why Guardado regarded Borba as the “mother-in-law.”

Also a California native, Relei said relocating was “always an up-in-the-air kind of thing.”

Contradicting previous statements made in court, Relei said she had switched her Chevy Malibu with the black Chrysler one witness had placed at the scene of the crime because the Chrysler had a car seat for their daughter.

In contradiction to Janet Borba’s testimony of Guardado possibly mumbling that he shot the victim, Relei stated, “Steve doesn’t talk in his sleep.”

During the investigation, police seized a shotgun. Relei said it belonged to her, as it was purchased by Guardado so she could shoot doves. Prosecutors later criticized her response, stating that the weapon looked much like a tactical shotgun.

Frosch, a retired police officer who was also called by Mitchell, told the court he was a patrol officer who had arrived at the Oct. 25 incident when he was working an overtime shift.

Frosch said he helped set up crime scene tape and thought he took the photos from the incident, which included the residence and Miguel Barraza’s saliva sample.

Previously, officer Trong Nguyen had stated someone from the RPD had taken it upon themselves to obtain a sample of the saliva.

Guardado was the last to testify. He confirmed that he did drive to a Walgreens for alcohol in the Chrysler, but denied he was with Eustacio Rios, but rather, a man from Arizona.

Guardado also stated he had switched vehicles with Relei and eventually met with her that night at Borba’s residence.

Guardado denied killing Vargas or even going to the victim’s home.

Guardado also argued that when authorities found him packing his things from his Roswell home after the murders that it had nothing to do with either homicide.

He also told prosecutors he was “not fond” of guns when he was asked about his wife’s shotgun.

When prosecutor Thomas referenced an interview Guardado had with Aldana, he stated Guardado called Oaxaca his “best friend.” Guardado denied the statement.

After Thomas offered him headphones to listen to the interview, he clarified he had called Oaxaca his “only friend,” which was consistent with what his wife had stated.

Alluding to an audio recording conversation Guardado had in the past, Thomas then asked Guardado what a “snitch” was. He replied that he did not know.

After asking him again, Guardado then said it was someone who was “telling.”

The audio recording was then played for Guardado. He became defensive, stating, “Where did I say it?”

After Thomas asked him if it was true he had said it, Guardado argued with the prosecutor, saying it was the truth, “according to you, sir.”

During final statements, the prosecution criticized how the defense argued Guardado’s innocence largely on Miguel Barraza’s saliva sample and the way Guardado had responded when they asked the defendant what a “snitch” was.

Mitchell clung to the original description provided to police at the time which detailed an average-sized man wearing a gray hoodie or shirt, “not too long” black hair, and weighing about 175 pounds.

The defense attorney pressed the points of the incorrect license plate description initially given by RPD officer King and the fact a projectile was never recovered. In the end, Mitchell said, the prosecution was “severely wanting and lacking.”

“And the reason it is,” Mitchell said. “Is that he didn’t do it.”

Multimedia-Crime reporter Trevier Gonzalez can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 301, or at breakingnews@rdrnews.com.