Jury reaches verdict in homeless camp slaying

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SAN DIEGO — A man was convicted Tuesday of murdering a fellow transient, who was stabbed, bludgeoned with a chunk of cement and had a burning wooden pallet tossed on top of him at a Grantville homeless encampment.

Following a day of deliberations, Sergio Padilla Chavez, 27, was found guilty of murder and jurors found true a special circumstance allegation of murder by arson in the July 4, 2017, attack on Jose Jesus Hernandez, 63, who died in a hospital about six weeks later.

Chavez faces life in prison without the possibility of parole when he is sentenced Aug. 30.

Trial testimony indicated that Chavez and Hernandez had an uncle-nephew type of relationship, but their friendship became contentious when, for unknown reasons, Hernandez claimed he’d killed Chavez’s mother and was glad she was dead. According to Chavez’s attorney, Dalen Duong, Chavez’s mother was killed in a car accident when her son was 8 years old.

Deputy District Attorney Kyle Sutterley said Chavez got into the argument with Hernandez in the evening hours at a homeless camp by the river bottom near 10990 San Diego Mission Road.

The prosecutor said Chavez stabbed Hernandez in the upper body with a pair of scissors and “crushed” the victim’s head with a cement block, causing several skull fractures.

He then threw a wooden pallet on top of the unconscious victim and used a makeshift blowtorch and an open flame to set the pallet on fire, causing burns over 15 percent of Hernandez’s body.

Other transients and good Samaritans pulled the victim from underneath the burning material and called 911, then noticed Chavez standing in a nearby patch of shrubbery. Sutterley said Chavez was holding a small wooden stool in his hand, trying to ward off anyone who got near him.

Following his arrest, Chavez admitted to a police officer that he’d set Hernandez on fire, investigators said.

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