SAN JOSE -- Twenty-two years after accountant Julie Bucalo was found bound and strangled in her own bed, a jury needed only a few hours Thursday to find a former security guard where she worked guilty of breaking into her San Jose cottage and killing her.

Ralph Baldenegro, 64, who also was a former firefighter, sat stone-faced as the verdict was pronounced, after 3 1/2 months of trial, but less than eight hours of deliberations. He is already serving a 94-year sentence for attacking a girlfriend and her teenage daughter in 2006 in Fremont.

The outcome was bittersweet for Bucalo's family.

"She would have turned 50 next week," said her brother Charlie Bucalo, his voice breaking. "It's a good birthday present for her."

Baldenegro now faces an additional sentence of life without parole for the Feb. 4, 1991, special-circumstances, first-degree murder, burglary and attempted rape of Bucalo. Judge JoAnne McCracken set a pre-sentencing hearing for Aug. 22.

In 1991, 26-year-old Bucalo and 42-year-old Baldenegro both worked in the same building in San Jose, he as a security guard for a private contractor, and she as a certified public accountant for Price Waterhouse. Before taking the security job at Bucalo's building, Baldenegro had been fired from the Santa Clara Fire Department a few years earlier after he was convicted of assaulting an ex-girlfriend.


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Thursday, Bucalo's sister Marianne Larson recalled that Bucalo had initially thought Baldenegro, whom she ran into occasionally in the building, was "nice" because he'd told her what turned out to be a lie -- that he was taking care of his girlfriend who had terminal cancer. That changed when he began stalking her, even showing up on the same plane she was on once.

Police long considered Bucalo's boyfriend the prime suspect. Then Baldenegro's DNA was found a few years ago on Bucalo's hand and the collar of the shirt she was wearing the day someone broke into her South Meridian Avenue cottage, handcuffed her and tried to rape her before strangling her.

Baldenegro's attorney, Chris Givens, had tried to persuade the seven women and five men on the jury that Bucalo's then-boyfriend was to blame. He also called the DNA evidence "ridiculous," saying it was inadvertently transferred to Bucalo via a jacket worn by Baldenegro's then-girlfriend, who had hugged Bucalo. But the jury was not swayed.

"The DNA was too strong of a presence,"' juror Rachel Holmstrom said. "It showed he was there physically."

Prosecutor Dan Fehderau also argued that Baldenegro had a history both before and after Bucalo's death of assaults against women that involved handcuffs or duct tape, a knife, suffocation and choking, which jurors said they found compelling. Bucalo was helpless to fight back because she'd been handcuffed.

Fehderau has said the District Attorney's Office went ahead with the prosecution even though Baldenegro is already serving a life sentence to bring justice to her family and to make sure he stays locked up in the event a higher court overturns his conviction.

But Givens said the prosecution was a waste of judicial resources given the unlikelihood of his client ever being retried in the Fremont case.

Several jurors found the crime particularly frightening -- an attack on a single woman who lived alone behind another house in a secluded bungalow.

"It was gruesome," one juror said, adding she was haunted by it from the first day of trial. "I had to do something every night to stop thinking about it."

Contact Tracey Kaplan at 408-278-3482. Follow her at Twitter.com/tkaplanreport.