A Dallas County jury found Richard Acosta Jr. guilty of capital murder Friday after he drove his son to and from a Garland convenience store where police say the 14-year-old shot four teenagers, killing three of them.
Acosta will receive an automatic sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole because prosecutors did not seek the death penalty.
Acosta, 34, drove his son, Abel Elias Acosta, to and from a Texaco station the night of Dec. 26, 2021, where police saidthe boy gunned down three teenagers and wounded a fourth. The Dallas Morning News typically does not name juveniles suspected of a crime but is making an exception because Abel Acosta, now 15, remains at large and is believed to pose a threat to public safety.
Killed in the shooting were 14-year-old Xavier Gonzalez, 16-year-old Ivan Noyala and 17-year-old Rafael Garcia. A 15-year-old cook, David Rodriguez, who had just started working at the store, was shot in the chest but survived.
The jury deliberated for just over two hours following 3 ½days of testimony from witnesses at the chaotic scene, police officers and medical and ballistics experts. Jurors also saw graphic surveillance footage of the killings.
Acosta took the stand in his own defense, saying he didn’t initially know his son was the shooter. But prosecutors presented evidence that he wanted to get rid of the murder weapon and his cellphone, and to move his wife and son away from Garland.
Although Acosta was not accused of directly causing the teens’ deaths, Texas’ law of parties allows people involved in a capital murder to be charged with the most severe crime.
Members of the victims’ families who gave impact statements said they were happy with the verdict but said only “half justice” had been served because Abel Acosta was still on the run. Gonzalez’s aunt Brenda Salinas said the family was not surprised by the verdict or how quickly it was handed down.
“We knew he was guilty,” he said.
The courtroom was filled each day with the victims’ loved ones, who squeezed together close in the gallery, sharing tissues and reassuring pats on the back when emotions ran high. Photographs of the victims hung at the front of the courtroom during the trial.
Acosta’s loved ones were also in the courtroom, waving goodbye to him as he was escorted out at the end of each day. One woman called out “Richie” and blew him a kiss as he was taken out of the room Friday after the jury left to deliberate.
After the verdict was read, the court remained mostly silent. Three of Acosta’s family members left in tears.
Later, members of the victims’ families had to be escorted by police and court officials after screaming broke out in the seventh-floor lobby while people were exiting the courtroom.
A television reporter asked Acosta’s family multiple times where the teenage suspect was. A woman with the family screamed “F— you! F— you all!” as the people with her ushered her into the elevator and TV cameras crowded them.
Some of the victims’ families started to walk toward the screaming but were held back by officers.
The families were then taken back into the courtroom so they could be escorted to their cars. One of them told officials the Acosta family was talking about waiting for them in the parking lot.
‘Losing him was so devastating’
A member from each of the victims’ families was allowed to give a victim impact statement and address Acosta after the sentencing.
“Losing him was so devastating to us,” said Ruby Herrera, Gonzalez’s older sister. “We didn’t realize how much of an impact he had until we lost him.”
She said the night her brother died frequently replays in her head, including getting the phone call informing her he was dead, going to the gas station that night and telling her grandmother the news.
Garcia’s sister Maria Padilla said he was sweet and funny.
“Rafael no longer has the option to experience new things in life, so why should you,” she said to Acosta.
Luciano Macedonio, Noyala’s uncle, decided to speak last minute. When he got on the stand he said his English was not good but he wanted to talk on behalf of the family.
All the families said they hoped Abel Acosta would be brought to justice one day, like his father had.
Prosecutors and Garland officers said the investigation remains open as long as Abel Acosta is at large.
“This is half done,” police Chief Jeff Bryan said, adding he agreed with the family that in order to “get full justice we need Abel Acosta in custody.”
Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot, who helped prosecute the case, said he was relieved by the guilty verdict but is not going to stop looking for the teen.
“Somebody knows where he is,” Creuzot said. “This has been the game plan.”
Creuzot said the triple homicide was one of the “most horrific” crimes he’s seen.
In closing statements Friday, Creuzot said the state didn’t have to prove the shooting was planned but “acting can happen” during the crime.
“As those boys’ lives were slipping away and his son with a hot gun in his hand had created all that smoke and stepped in the back of that car, a reasonable person would have called 911,” Creuzot said. “What does he do? Pedal to the metal and got out of there.”
Defense attorneys Heath Harris and Stephanie Shackelford argued the state presented evidence based in speculation, whereas Acosta told the jury exactly what happened when he took the stand.
“Richard told you what happened. He explained all those things to you,” Shackelford said. “None of those words are good enough to send this man to prison for the rest of his life.”
Harris said Acosta being “merely present at the time of the offense” doesn’t prove he knew his son had just killed three people when he drove away.
“They all believe Richard Acosta was the getaway driver, but in order for you to be the getaway driver you have to know what offense you’re driving away from,” he said, adding prosecutors “need to find something to prove that the offense happened — not just a shooting — but the offense.”
Prosecutor Stephanie Fargo questioned Acosta’s credibility, saying his explanations for his actions were “pure nonsense.”
“I will submit to you that everything that came out of his mouth was a ridiculous explanation and an outright lie,” she said. “This grown man took his 14-year-old son and when the plan was hatched, he encouraged, he directed, he abled in the execution of those three boys. … They never saw it coming.”
This story, originally published in The Dallas Morning News, is reprinted as part of a collaborative partnership between The Dallas Morning News and Texas Metro News. The partnership seeks to boost coverage of Dallas’ communities of color, particularly in southern Dallas- at the bottom.