Concluding a weeklong sentencing trial, a Volusia County jury voted 8-4 today to recommend the death penalty for Julio Rivera, the 52-year-old former fugitive who shot and killed his friend at a DeBary self-storage facility on Dec. 8, 2019.
Before 2016 in Florida, a defendant could be sentenced to death following a simple majority recommendation by a jury of 12. The Florida Supreme Court ruled that unconstitutional in 2016, requiring a unanimous recommendation verdict instead. Last year, the Legislature again changed the law, reverting to majority recommendations, this time requiring a majority of at least eight jurors. The recommendation in the Rivera case is one of the first under that new standard. Circuit Judge Elizabeth Blackburn will impose sentence on April 1.
The killing took place at Unit 12 of the self-storage business at 333 East Highbanks Road. Rivera fled after the shooting, but Casey Bathjer, Ovalle’s girlfriend, had witnessed it, and called law enforcement. When sheriff’s deputies were at the scene, Rivera returned and told deputies, using an expoletive, that one “bad guy is gone.” He then asked the deputies if they wanted him to show them. Rivera gave what was supposed to be a description of the shooter and his car.
Bathjer told a different account. The three of them had been sitting in the storage unit, smoking marijuana, Rivera and Ovalle talking in Spanish in a non-confrontational way, when Rivera stood up and told Ovalle he wanted to show him his new toy. He took out a gun, stood behind Ovalle, and fired a shot in back of Ovalle’s head.
At the time, Ovalle was helping Rivera hide out from law enforcement in New York, where he had previously served 25 years in prison for murder, and where he was on parole. He had an outstanding violation for a parole violation. He’d been hiding out in the storage unit for weeks.
The circumstances surrounding the shooting aren’t without bizarre elements. Immediately after the shooting, Bathjer got up to flee, telling Rivera she needed to get home to check on her two children. He went with her, telling her everything would be fine and that he would protect her and her children. When she got to Ovalle’s home, she took out a gun from the car’s center console–with Rivera still in the car–and went inside. Rivera then drove off, while she fled the residence on foot, calling 911. Sheriff’s deputies found her. She told them she did not know why Rivera had killed Ovalle, or why he told her he’d protect her. He was swiftly charged with first-degree, premeditated murder.
“The defendant should receive the same measure of mercy he gave to our victim,” State Attorney R.J. Larizza said after toay’s verdict. “His prior crimes demonstrate a total disdain for human life.”
The case was investigated by the Volusia Sheriff’s Office. Assistant State Attorney Heatha Trigones and Chief of Homicide Jason Lewis prosecuted the case. Rivera was defended by attorney Terence Lenamon.