AUSTIN (KXAN) — Shedding tears before she even reached the witness stand, Sandra Soto testified about raising her daughter Julie Ann Gonzalez, the last days before she disappeared, and her hopeful — yet desperate — plea for her daughter’s safe return and answers to what happened five years ago.
George De La Cruz is on trial for the murder of his estranged wife, but her body has never been found.
Sweet, playful and a beautiful heart is how she described her daughter, who received a scholarship to attend St. Edward’s University. But after becoming pregnant, Gonzalez realized the necessity of a career job and dropped out of school to become a pharmacy tech at Walgreen’s.
Although Soto did not think De La Cruz was the right match for her daughter, she supported the couple and even offered De La Cruz encouragement when the couple went through their separation.
“I told him to give her time,” said Soto.
Yet there were obvious moments in the couple’s marriage that were trying for Soto. She testified about her frustration of seeing De La Cruz play a handheld video game while his wife was pregnant and having contractions the day their daughter Layla was born.
“Instead of concentrating on his wife who was having contractions, he was playing stupid video games,” she said.
Multiple witnesses have testified that De La Cruz’s video game hobby was the cause of major problems in the marriage.
After the separation, Soto said De La Cruz made it difficult for Gonzalez to retrieve items from the home and refused to sign divorce papers, citing he wanted to make things work — despite making no effort to improve the relationship.
She admitted her relationship with her daughter grew tense as Gonzalez may have found herself caught in the middle between a husband in a struggling marriage and a mother who saw her unhappy. The last time Soto talked to Gonzalez was the day before she disappeared. Gonzalez was scheduled to pick up Layla but told her mother De La Cruz asked for one more day.
“I said, ‘Julie, that doesn’t sound right. Something is wrong,’” Soto said while crying heavily.
She asked Gonzalez if she could accompany her on Friday to pick up Layla, but ultimately Gonzalez told her it would not be necessary. Soto admitted she and her daughter let their guard down.
After discovering Gonzalez’s car a day later, Soto said she heard De La Cruz had already reported that Layla had been abandoned by her mother. That immediately made her suspect De La Cruz was somehow involved.
“I knew right then he did something to her because Julie would not leave Layla with George.”
Soto said she begged De La Cruz to tell him if he knew anything more about what may have happened to Gonzalez, but he would only say, “She will be back.”
While on the stand, Soto also said she was frustrated with the Austin police investigation and sought media attention because she felt enough was not being done. Her frustration grew when a detective told her that because of Gonzalez’s age, at 21 years old, she was allowed to leave on her own free will.
“I asked them, ‘How do you know she left?’” said Soto.
The state rested their case Tuesday, and closing arguments could be heard Wednesday. Prosecutors are trying to prove De La Cruz killed Gonzales and covered his tracks.
Witness: Bleeding Julie Ann Gonzalez tried to call for help
According to an inmate in the Travis County Jail sometime in 2013, De La Cruz cried as he described a physical altercation between himself and his estranged wife Julie Ann Gonzalez. The inmate said De La Cruz shared the story with him how Gonzalez fell and hit her head, rendering her bleeding and unconscious at his home.
That inmate, whom the court asked media not to identify, was housed in the same facility with De La Cruz. While on the stand, the inmate said whenever asked about his reasons for being in jail, De La Cruz did not want to speak about it. De La Cruz drew a picture one time, recalled the inmate, which eluded to ‘things women make men do.” But the most intriguing part of the inmate’s testimony was his description of conversation about the fight.
According to the inmate, De La Cruz was “venting” and hesitant to talk about what happened. But he said De La Cruz did share with him the reason for the fight was because of another man Gonzalez had expressed interest in for a romantic relationship.
“I know that she got knocked out and he was freaking out,” said the inmate. He testified when Gonzalez tried to call for help, De La Cruz stopped her according to the jail conversation.
The defense immediately tried to discredit the inmate and his testimony by pointing to a criminal record which includes time served for burglaries and drug possession. They also questioned whether or not the inmate received leniency or benefits in exchange for his testimony. The inmate was adamant he had not received any benefits since setting up the meeting with a detective through his attorney. A reduction in one of the charges against him had nothing to do with his testimony according to the inmate, a claim which made the defense very skeptical.
“Whether you believe it or not, I didn’t care about a deal. There’s a little girl involved,” said the inmate about his motivations for testifying.
After his testimony, Sgt. Trina Hampton with the Travis County Sheriff’s Office took the stand. She oversees activities in jail and said the previous witness and De La Cruz were in the same facility — meaning they would have had access to speak with each other.
Cell phone expert
A wireless expert paid by the state to examine the case said connections to Gonzalez’s cell phone showed uncharacteristic activity, and many of the connections following her disappearance came in the vicinity of De La Cruz’s home.
Jim Cook accessed usage records from Gonzalez’s and De La Cruz’s cell phone, as well as De La Cruz’s Xbox system. In a six-month period prior to her disappearance, Gonzalez’s cell phone would show a pattern of arriving at De La Cruz’s home, but leaving within a matter of minutes. On March 26, 2010, the day of her disappearance, Cook testified her phone was tracked in the vicinity of De La Cruz’s home for more than three hours. Additionally, after 10:50 a.m. on that day, there were 27 cell connections from Julie’s phone with 22 coming in the vicinity of De La Cruz’s home.
Later that night around 8 p.m., Gonzalez’s cell phone was tracked in the vicinity of Best Buy — where receipts show De La Cruz made a purchase at the same time, according to Cook.
The day after her disappearance, Cook said Gonzalez’s phone pinged off a tower it had never pinged off of before, and De La Cruz’s phone also pinged off that tower. The tower is in the vicinity of an apartment belonging to De La Cruz’s friend, a place where earlier testimony indicated De La Cruz used Wi-Fi to access Gonzalez’s account.
The state is trying to show De La Cruz may have used Gonzalez’s cell phone and sent texts or made postings about running away to Colorado.
Forensics experts testified on Monday that five days after Gonzalez went missing, someone accessed both her and her husband’s Myspace pages — just seven minutes apart — using the same IP address.
Prosecutors say De La Cruz might be the one behind postings on Gonzalez’s page, saying she was running away to Colorado.
You can follow Chris Sadeghi’s live tweets from the courtroom.