Shortly after 1 p.m. Friday, Arthur Gonzales was in a Five Guys restaurant near the Stafford County courthouse, sharing long embraces with his sons.
The former FBI agent had spent the morning in a Stafford courtroom, listening to the closing arguments of a trial where he stood accused of voluntary manslaughter for killing his estranged wife, Julie Serna Gonzales.
He knew the charge could land him in prison for up to 10 years. He also knew that when lunch was over, he would return to the courtroom to hear the verdict that would determine his future.
About an hour later, Judge Sarah Deneke found him not guilty. Gonzales left the courtroom a free man.
Deneke’s decision ended a long legal ordeal that began on April 19, 2013, when Gonzales fired four shots into his 42-year-old wife.
He claimed he acted in self-defense after she attacked him with a knife.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Eric Olsen insisted that Julie Gonzales was killed without justification and that her husband manipulated the crime scene to fit his story, including placing a knife in her hand after she was dead.
Two juries were unable to reach a decision in previous trials, so Olsen and defense attorney Mark Gardner agreed to let Deneke make the decision this time.
After a five-day trial, Deneke’s decision started with a 35-minute explanation in which she described how she evaluated the reams of evidence. At the end, she said the defense had raised enough reasonable doubt that she was required by law to find Gonzales not guilty.
Both sides put on essentially the same cases they’d put on before, though much of the evidence this time was in the form of transcripts from previous trials.
In a closing argument that lasted well over an hour Friday, Olsen again described what he claimed was a clear case of unjustifiable homicide.
He said that the process that resulted in Julie Gonzales’ death started in 2010, when Arthur Gonzales left an FBI office in New Mexico to work at the FBI Academy in Quantico.
Gonzales led his wife to believe he was making the move for the benefit of their failing marriage, Olsen said, but he told at least two people that he was planning to divorce her and liked his chances for custody of their two sons better in Virginia.
By the time he filed for divorce in 2012, Olsen said, text messages and other evidence showed that Gonzales was already deeply in love with a young woman in her 20s, Cara Kast.
According to testimony, Arthur Gonzales and Cast stopped dating toward the end of that year after he learned that Kast was dating another FBI agent, who she eventually married.
But by March of 2013, Kast was back in Gonzales’ life and “he was happy,” Olsen said. “His life was on the path he wanted it to be.”
The fatal April 19 confrontation came after Gonzales returned to their Alderwood Drive home in Stafford that afternoon and found Julie Gonzales there.
Julie Gonzales, who was not supposed to be in the home without her husband’s permission, had reportedly come to see their dog and to get some clothes.
Arthur Gonzales said she suddenly became violent during a discussion about speeding up their divorce. Olsen suggested that Gonzales was really upset because she had found Kast’s undergarments in the bedroom and feared that might hinder his custody efforts.
Olsen said Gonzales was also distraught because he had found out less than 36 hours earlier that Kast was again seeing the other man.
“It was the beginning of the end of the life he’d imagined, and Julie Gonzales paid the price for it,” Olsen said.
Gardner urged the judge to look beyond the emotion of the case and simply apply the law. He said such things as Gonzales’ failed marriage and his relationship with Kast weren’t critical.
“What happened in that kitchen is what’s important, and the evidence does not disprove Art’s story,” Gardner said.
Deneke said the scientific evidence was the most important consideration for her, especially the testimony about a “shored” wound.
A shored wound, experts testified, occurs when a bullet travels through a body and is stopped by a hard surface.
The prosecution insisted that the hard surface was the floor, proving that Julie Gonzales was on her back when at least one of the shots hit her. Former state Chief Medical Examiner Marcella Fierro backed the prosecution’s theory.
But defense attorneys used experts who countered that the bra Julie Gonzales was wearing could have caused the shored wound.
Deneke said that although she believes it is likely that the bullet was stopped by the floor, the defense had done enough to raise reasonable doubt.
“There is no reasonable or rational explanation for what happened,” Deneke said. “The only thing I’m 100 percent sure of is that Julie Gonzales should not be dead.”
Gardner later called it the most “grueling” criminal case he’d ever handled. He said that even though Gonzales has been cleared, the ordeal cost him his career and most of his assets.