A jury of seven men and five women from La Crosse county convicted a Wausau man Thursday of breaking into a high school senior’s apartment on May 2, 2009, beat and stabbed her to death and stole her underwear and cell phone.
The unanimous decision means that Raul Ponce-Rocha faces life in prison when he’s sentenced in two months. Prosecutors said they wanted to let the verdict sink in before announcing whether they believe Ponce-Rocha should ever be eligible for release.
The verdict was a major victory for prosecutors, who said during seven days of testimony that Ponce-Rocha’s DNA was found under victim Breanna Schneller’s fingernail, on an iron handle used to beat her, on a striped glove that had Schneller’s blood and on a plastic bag the glove was found in. Police found the bag in a Dumpster outside the El Tequila Salsa Mexican restaurant in Rib Mountain where Ponce-Rocha worked.
A shoe that Ponce-Rocha wore the day of the murder was consistent with a bloody shoeprint found on a rug in Schneller’s bathroom. And Schneller’s hair was found on the waistband of the sweatshirt Ponce-Rocha wore the day of the murder.
“There is just going to be justice served for the community,” Marathon County deputy district attorney Theresa Wetzsteon said. “It answers some questions for the family and the community. Just relief.”
Schneller’s father Craig pumped his fist in the air then sobbed in his hands as Judge Patrick Brady read each of the four verdicts. Lori Schneller said the verdict won’t bring her daughter back but does help them move forward.
“We are overly thrilled that justice has been done for her,” Lori Schneller said outside the courtroom with Craig and their son Rocky at her side. “I don’t know if any day will ever be the same, but this makes it a little bit easier.”
Defense attorneys said in their closing arguments Thursday that 22 minutes of time that Ponce-Rocha could not account for the morning of the murder, the lack of blood on his clothes and a lack of motive created reasonable doubt.
“This is the way the jury decided the case and this is what we’ll live with,” public defender Mike Moran said. He praised the jury for paying careful attention during the weeklong trial. “This jury was very attentive throughout the trial.”
Ponce-Rocha took the stand in his own defense Tuesday. He testified that he ran into Sergio Juarez-Gutirrez, a former co-worker, in the parking lot of Schneller’s apartment complex on his way to pick a restaurant cook. Ponce-Rocha said he waited in the living room of Schneller’s apartment while she and Juarez talked alone in a different room.
Ponce-Rocha said Schneller pulled his arm as he left the apartment. He testified that Schneller was alive the last time he saw her.
But Juarez-Gutirrez, who came to Wisconsin from Mexico on the eve of closing arguments, testified that he never saw Schneller nor Ponce-Rocha the day of the murder. Juarez-Gutirrez’s testimony essentially refuted Ponce-Rocha’s version and dealt a last-minute blow to the defense theory in the case.