BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — Family members of a Delano teen murdered 20 years ago say their emails protesting the parole of his convicted killer went unanswered by the Office of Governor Gavin Newsom.
Gerardo Zavala, 48, was found guilty in 2006 for the torture and shooting of 17-year-old Eric Jones. Zavala was recommended for parole in late 2020, and while the Governor has the power to block his release, his office wrote in a statement to 17 News, “The Governor has taken no action on this decision, which means the parole suitability finding from the parole board is allowed to stand. Parole actions become final following review by the Governor’s office. Taking no further action is one of the options available to the Governor on parole suitability findings.”
In a group call, family members told 17 News they believe the decision is a mistake.
“He should not be out,” said Jones’ aunt, Lealga Fortson. “I don’t think he could be good enough to ever get out.”
On Jan. 24, 2001, Zavala and two others invited Jones into a Delano home to smoke methamphetamine, according to the Tulare County release. Among the horrors inflicted on him, Jones was beaten with a pipe, stabbed with a screwdriver, tortured with live wires and sodomized. At least one suspect called Jones the n-word, according to court documents.
Hours later, they bound Jones with duct tape and threw him into the trunk of a car, prosecutors said. He was driven to a remote road outside Allensworth, and shot 10 times at point-blank range. His cousin, Monique Fortson, said the spot is a constant reminder for her family, who had to drive by it every day.
The Fortsons said they’ve been trying to contact the Governor’s Office since October when they were told Zavala was up for parole, but have never received a response, only learning of his pending release from Avenal State Prison and the Tulare County District Attorney’s Office. Monique said she wasn’t even sure if their emails were read.
“He needs to do better, responding to the cries of victims and their families,” said Monique.
Fortson said Jones was like a little brother to her, an animal lover who had “some faults,” but was the “most kind person we could ever say.”
Zavala received 18 years to life after being convicted in 2006, while three other men convicted in the case are serving life without possibility of parole. A fifth was sentenced 15 years. Two Delano brothers, Juan and Gerardo Soto, are believed to have escaped to Mexico and are still wanted in the case.
Zavala currently has a hold placed on him by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. President Joe Biden recently ordered a 100-day pause on deportations, with a federal injunction on the section that deals with people who have existing deportation orders. On Monday, the Tulare County District Attorney’s Office said it was unclear how this affects Zavala’s case, but immigration attorney Win Eaton says it shouldn’t stop Zavala from being detained by ICE upon his release.
“The fact is, the executive order President Biden executed had no effect on whether ICE can lodge a detainer and hold somebody, or take someone into immigration custody if they’re being released from criminal custody,” Eaton said on Wednesday.
By law, detainees must be released if ICE does not take custody of them within 48 hours of a state or local agency no longer having a legal reason to keep them. But with a case like Zavala’s, and with charges as serious as his, Eaton says it’s unlikely.
“Because of the nature of his crimes, this is what ICE would consider a mandatory custody case,” Eaton said.
Either way, Jones’ family members still would rather have Zavala stay in prison.
“He continues to get to live his life, and our family is without Eric, only to just enjoy our memories that we had,” said Monique Fortson.
“He was that one who actually brightened up our lives when we had him,” said his sister, Marissa Wilkinson. “And we do miss him.”
In a phone call to 17 News, ICE spokesman Jonathan Moor said the agency is still reviewing guidance related to the President’s order and couldn’t directly comment on what it means for Zavala’s case at this time.