Veronica Paz smoked pot with and repeatedly had public sex with Diego Gonzales, a 17-year-old high school wrestling champion, on a hillside perch overlooking Orange County. Yes, it is illegal for an adult to have sex with a minor, but that’s the least of Paz’s worries. The 26-year-old Stater Bros. grocery cashier is still trying to explain how Gonzales ended up dead—and his corpse ended up burnt—after their last rendezvous in the back seat of her Nissan Altima in November 2003.
The trouble began at a party a few months before the death. Paz came with Gonzales, with whom she’d had an on-again, off-again sexual relationship. They worked in the same store; he was a bag boy. Garden Grove’s Brandan Dante Perry, who’d known Gonzales since the 8th grade and was himself once a high school football star, showed up too.
Perry also enjoyed an on-again, off-again sexual relationship with Paz, and was none to happy to see her show up with Gonzales. The two youths puffed out their chests, exchanged nasty words and shoves, but parted without a fight. Call it a twisted sex triangle.
Fast forward to midnight on November 10, 2003, Paz drove to a 7-Eleven, purchased Trojan condoms and then met Gonzales in a parking lot. The two smoked pot and after 20 minutes she suggested they drive to their favorite sex spot: Hi Top Lane in Orange.
“I was just, like, ‘Are you ready’ [for sex],” Paz recalled for Dan Salcedo, a veteran Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) homicide detective. “He was, like, ‘Yeah!’”
At the spot, Paz and Gonzales jumped in the back seat of her car, kissed and fondled. Paz removed her blouse. Gonzales took off his shirt and began to drop his pants when another car arrived. “We heard this car pull up and we both turned around to look,” Paz claimed. “I saw Brandan and I started freaking out.”
Perry walked up pointing a .40-caliber Glock at Gonzales. He ordered Gonzales out of the car. The kid refused and was pistol-whipped in the face. A struggle ensued. Perry lost the gun, got it back and then shot Gonzales in the head and chest. A neighbor 200 yards away heard two popping sounds and then vehicles accelerating down the hill.
Paz and Perry drove their cars to a Jack in the Box on Chapman Avenue, where they fretted about forensic evidence, according to court records. They drove back to the scene of the crime. Poured lighter fluid on Gonzales’s body and flicked a Bic lighter. Unsatisfied that the corpse didn’t burn to a crisp, Perry called friends—who drove to the scene with diesel fuel. They doused the corpse again, lit a fire and left.
It didn’t take long for OCSD to solve the case. Perry confessed that he’d plotted the murder with Paz by discussing ways to lure Gonzales into a trap. He was sentenced to a prison term of 25 years to life with the possibility of parole.
Paz fought her arrest. She acknowledged plotting with Perry, but claimed the Hi Top Lane plan was only supposed to result in Gonzales “getting his ass kicked.” She insisted that she didn’t even know that Perry had a gun.
Perhaps her story would have been more believable if prosecutors hadn’t presented evidence that she had: bought the bullets Perry used; given Gonzales’ work schedule to Perry; gone with Perry to the desert to practice shooting the Glock and told Perry exactly where to find Gonzales on the night of the murder.
A jury convicted her of the murder; Superior Court Judge James Stotler sentenced her to a term of 25 years to life. But late last month, the court of appeal based in Santa Ana overturned her conviction, blaming bad jury instructions. She’ll get a second shot at avoiding a life sentence.
(Wednesdays at OCWeekly.com, discover the depths of human depravity in Orange County, California.)
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— R. Scott Moxley / OC Weekly