Condemned killer of 3 in Corpus Christi set to die

Jose Villegas. (AP Photo/Texas Department of Criminal Justice)
Jose Villegas. (AP Photo/Texas Department of Criminal Justice)

HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) — Jose Villegas was out on bond for a sexual assault charge and was supposed to go on trial in Corpus Christi for punching a woman in the face on the same day 13 years ago that he stabbed ex-girlfriend, her son and her mother to death.

The former cook, dishwasher and laborer was arrested after a police chase and charged with capital murder for the deaths of Erida Salazar, her 3-year-old son, Jacob, and her mother, Alma Perez, 51.

Villegas, 38, was set for lethal injection Wednesday for the slayings. He would be the seventh Texas inmate executed this year and the fifth in as many weeks in the nation’s most active death penalty state.

His attorneys argue that the punishment should be put off so they have additional time to investigate evidence they’ve recently found that Villegas is mentally impaired and ineligible for execution. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals refused Monday to halt the punishment and lawyers for Villegas said they would take their appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Salazar’s father, returning home Jan. 22, 2001, from jury duty, found the bloody body of his wife and had a neighbor call police. He then went back inside to find his daughter, 23, and grandson also dead. Court documents show Salazar was stabbed 32 times, her son 19 times and mother 35 times. A television and car also were taken from the home.

Police spotted Salazar’s car with Villegas behind the wheel and he led them on a chase that ended when he bailed out on foot. When he was caught, officers found three bags of cocaine inside his baseball cap.

Testimony at his 2002 capital murder trial showed Villegas told police he pawned the stolen television for $75, used the money immediately to buy cocaine and hoped to commit suicide by overdosing.

“We had a confession, DNA, witnesses who saw him leaving the house afterward,” Mark Skurka, the Nueces County district attorney who prosecuted the case, said. “He killed the mom first, then his girlfriend, then the baby.”

Jurors deliberated less than 20 minutes before convicting him.

Villegas had multiple previous arrests, including burglary, making terroristic threats to kill a woman, assaults and two counts of indecency with a child for exposing himself and fondling the daughter of the woman he was accused of punching in the face. Records showed he had spent at least 200 days in jail and four years on probation.

Defense attorneys at his trial acknowledged Villegas committed the slayings but said they were not intentional and he was mentally ill. A defense psychiatrist blamed his behavior on uncontrollable rages caused by “intermittent explosive disorder.”

“Punishment was the only issue,” Grant Jones, one of Villegas’ trial lawyers, recalled this week. “I’ve been trying criminal cases over 40 years and I’d say in about 80 percent of the cases, mental health is a factor to one degree or another.”

Relatives said Salazar’s mother had urged her to leave Villegas when she learned of the sex charges against him.

Villegas would be the third Texas inmate executed with a new stock of pentobarbital from a provider corrections officials have refused to identify, citing the possibility of threats of violence against the supplier. The Supreme Court has upheld that stance.

Texas and other death penalty states have been scrambling for substitute drugs or new sources for drugs for lethal injections after major drugmakers — many based in Europe where death penalty opposition is strong — stopped selling to state corrections agencies.

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