The man identified as the leader of a crew that committed several robberies, including one in Bowling Green that led to a death, was sentenced Monday to 460 months in prison.
Jorge Caballero-Melgar, 36, of Nashville, was sentenced in U.S. District Court in Bowling Green on a number of charges stemming from the March 17, 2017, robbery of La Placita market on Morgantown Road, during which Jose Cruz, 31, of Bowling Green, was shot and killed while attempting to intervene.
Rosio Lucero, the mother of Cruz’s son, was working at La Placita on the day of the robbery, where she said she was restrained and held at gunpoint.
At Monday’s sentencing, Lucero spoke about the impact of Cruz’s death on his surviving family, including his son, who has autism.
“All (my son) wants for you to know is that he hopes his dad gets the justice he deserves,” Lucero said. “(Caballero-Melgar) destroyed not just our family, but a lot of families.”
A jury found Caballero-Melgar guilty this year of murder through use of a firearm during a crime of violence, interference with commerce by robbery, conspiracy to interfere with commerce by robbery, conspiracy to carry or possess a firearm during a crime of violence and illegal reentry after deportation.
Jurors at the trial heard evidence that Caballero-Melgar selected the businesses to rob, supplied co-defendants with firearms and stayed in contact with them over the phone. After each robbery, Caballero-Melgar would receive an equal share of the stolen money.
Police investigating the La Placita robbery and homicide uncovered a conspiracy involving 13 people living in Nashville who committed 15 robberies in four states over the span of a year.
Five people were charged in the La Placita case, and Caballero-Melgar was the only person to take his case to trial.
He faced a maximum possible sentence of life imprisonment, which Assistant U.S. Attorney Marisa Ford sought Monday.
“We’re here today because he was the driving force behind this entire organization,” Ford said of Caballero-Melgar. “But for him, it’s possible that none of these robberies would have taken place. ... I don’t like for defendants to be left without hope, but there’s a family sitting in this courtroom without hope of ever seeing their son, their brother, their uncle again.”
Ford said Cruz’s efforts to stop the robbery, which was carried out by Jonny Reyes-Martinez and Jose Varela, were “heroic.”
At Caballero-Melgar’s trial, Reyes-Martinez testified he struggled with Cruz near La Placita’s entrance before shooting him to get away.
Cruz died at an area hospital from the gunshot, which also grazed Varela.
Reyes-Martinez pleaded guilty to murder, robbery and other charges and was sentenced to 21 years and 10 months in prison. Varela received a sentence of 12 years and two months after pleading guilty to many of the same charges as Reyes-Martinez.
Two other co-defendants, Estrellita Soto and Lilian Duron, pleaded guilty to robbery and received sentences of 70 months and 48 months, respectively.
Cruz’s niece, Emily Nunez, remembered how her uncle brought her to a practice for a school musical shortly before he was killed, and how she could not stand to be at the theater after that because it reminded her of the last time she saw her uncle.
“My uncle has always been around, even before my father was imprisoned,” Nunez said. “He’s the type of person who was very charismatic, he was a good community member who loved his family. He had a beautiful relationship with my mother and grandmother.”
Nunez said Caballero-Melgar never appeared remorseful for his actions, and that frequent courtroom visits over the course of the criminal proceedings had a traumatizing effect for the family.
“No number (of years) can be too high because he committed some of the most heinous crimes,” Nunez said.
Caballero-Melgar’s attorney, Bryce Caldwell, filed no paperwork ahead of sentencing to ask for a specific time of imprisonment.
In court Monday, Caldwell said Caballero-Melgar had been a model inmate while his case was pending.
“I think he will be the same inmate he has been as long as there’s some sense he might be out of custody some day,” Caldwell said.
Pressed by U.S. District Court Chief Judge Greg Stivers to request a specific amount of time for Caballero-Melgar to serve, Caldwell said he wanted his client to receive the same sentence as Reyes-Martinez.
Janeth Cruz, Jose Cruz’s sister, said Caballero-Melgar was a “master manipulator” who was able to persuade others into committing a series of violent robberies.
Two of Jose Cruz’s children have moved to Mexico since their father died, Janeth Cruz said.
“He shouldn’t be given another opportunity to set foot outside,” Janeth Cruz said of Caballero-Melgar.
Near the end of Monday’s hearing, Caballero-Melgar made his first public remarks about the incident.
“I’m sorry to everyone affected by what’s happened here,” Caballero-Melgar said through an interpreter. “I’ve never taken anyone’s life, nor have I planned on taking anyone’s life. ... If I could pay you with my life I would, even though I was not the person who caused your son to lose his life.”
Stivers said the behavior of the perpetrators of these robberies was “absolutely reckless” and that Caballero-Melgar was the most culpable of all the defendants for his role as an organizer.
“It seems to be his belief that by not being physically present (at the robberies) he somehow shielded himself from the violent crimes he directed,” Stivers said.
Stivers stopped short of imposing a life sentence, noting that the homicide that occurred was not a premeditated act but instead something that happened “in the heat of a physical confrontation.”
– Follow courts reporter Justin Story on Twitter @jstorydailynews or visit bgdailynews.com.