MARTINEZ -- A Richmond man was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison Friday for the 2011 stabbing death of his former girlfriend, a crime Judge Clare Maier described as "spiteful fury" before imposing the maximum sentence allowable.
Rafael Zarate, 44, was convicted of first-degree murder and stalking for pursuing and killing Jensy Romero shortly after she broke off their relationship in September 2011, stabbing the single mother of two in the women's room of the Richmond restaurant where she waited tables. Maier also sentenced Zarate to four years for stalking.
Testifying at trial, Zarate, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, characterized his act as a crime of passion. He said he snapped when, after repeatedly asking Romero whether she was seeing someone else, she finally replied, "Yes. Are you happy now?"
"The irony of what I saw on the witness stand was a man who rationalized, justified and blamed the victim for her own murder," Maier said. "Nothing is his fault."
Romero, 30, a San Pablo resident, had planned to seek a restraining order against Zarate the day after she was killed. Several of her family members and friends were in court for Zarate's sentencing.
A handwritten letter from Jose Gomez, a high school junior and the oldest of her two sons, was read in court by prosecutor Rachel Piersig.
"Knowing she is in a better place makes me happy," the letter read. "My pain is ever-increasing. The tears from my eyes are enough to fill an ocean but not enough to fill the void."
A letter from Romero's brother, Osmaro Herrera, was read by a translator.
"Dear Sister," it began, "I want to tell you we miss you very much. As your older brother, I will always be with you and your children. They are the best thing you left in this life."
Before sentencing, Piersig argued for the maximum term.
"This was a particularly heinous and chilling killing," the prosecutor said. "He did everything to terrorize her. She did nothing to encourage him. He got her alone, he armed himself in advance, and he killed her in cold blood. How frightened and helpless she must have felt."
Defense attorney Michael Lepie, speaking for Zarate, called the crime "an aberration in his character."
"Mr. Zarate respects the jury's decision in this case," Lepie said. "He continues to be sad about his conduct. It troubles him."
Two jurors from the case also attended the sentencing. Lepie said Zarate's sister and her family were unable to attend because his sister was in the hospital.
Contact Gary Peterson at 925-952-5053. Follow him at Twitter.com/garyscribe.