Jury selection begins this week for a Graham man accused of killing his two young sons and sending photos of the dead children to their mother.
Gabriel Armandariz is alleged to have killed 6-month-old Luke and 2-year-old Gatlin Armandariz, at his home in Graham on April 13, 2011. According to past media reports, he then sent text messages and gruesome photographs to his ex-girlfriend, Lauren Smith, who lived in Sudan, northwest of Lubbock.
One photo allegedly showed one of the boys hanging. Another picture showed the two boys lying on a bed on either side of Armandariz with the message, “We love u, goodbye,” underneath.
Graham City Manager David Casteel said the senseless loss of young lives in the small community shook many residents to their core.
“Murder is very rare here,” Casteel said of the town about 75 miles northwest of Fort Worth. “We have a small crime here and there, but this was totally unexpected.”
Graham police searched for several hours before finding the bodies of Gatlin and Luke underneath the residence where the boys lived with their father.
A man had called from Armandariz’s cellphone and confessed to killing his children about 10 hours before police found the bodies, authorities said.
Armandariz, now 32, was arrested and charged with capital murder. After a series of legal maneuverings, the trial was moved from Young County to Tarrant County. Jury selection is scheduled to begin Wednesday with the trial set for Feb. 16.
The state is seeking the death penalty in the case, which is being prosecuted by Lisa Tanner and Tom Cloudt, assistant attorneys in the Texas attorney general’s office.
‘Taken aback, devasted’
Employees at the Chuck Wagon restaurant, where Smith worked in Sudan, said no one was sure whether the pictures texted to Smith were real, but they contacted police anyway. One of her co-workers said Smith was in shock and crying. According to a relative, Smith was working with an attorney to try and get her sons back from Armandariz, who had taken them a few months before, according to published reports.
The day after the bodies were found under the small, rock house a few blocks from downtown Graham, relatives gathered to place netting over about 100 stuffed animals that had been left as a memorial so that gusty winds would not blow them away. A fund was established at a local bank to help the family with burial costs. Proceeds from bake sales, pony rides and other fundraisers were also donated to the family.
“Residents in the community and the county were taken aback, devastated,” said John C. Bullock, Young County Judge. “There is a feeling now in the community that the wheels of justice for this are turning awfully slow. And it’ll be a long time before this is over. Even if there is a conviction, it still won’t be over.”
But Mayor Jack Graham said the community has also learned to be patient, and points to a recent homicide case.
Candice Shields, 23, disappeared from her home in Graham on Dec. 10, 2011, and although her body was never found, her accused killer was convicted.
Jeremy Thornburg of Sweetwater was arrested in 2013 and sentenced to life in prison for fatally shooting Shields, who was three months pregnant and the mother of a toddler.
“As abhorrent as this person might be, he deserves the right to a defense,” Graham said about Armandariz. “At the end of the day, what you really want is not to screw this thing up. And if it takes three years, that’s how long it takes.”
Gag order issued
In April 2012, state District Judge Stephen Bristow of Graham issued a gag order that prohibited parties involved in the trial from making statements about the case outside of regular judicial proceedings.
Terri Moore and Joetta Keene, defense attorneys for Armandariz, filed a change-of-venue motion in November 2012, arguing that the publicity surrounding the death of the two boys had been so extensive and unfair toward Armandariz that it was unlikely that an impartial jury made up of Young County residents could be seated.
The county has between 18,000 and 19,000 residents, with Graham (8,900) and Olney (3,300) as its two biggest towns.
Armandariz’s attorneys also referenced in their motion online posts on Internet forums, some of which still exist on what is identified as Gabriel Armandariz’s Facebook page, that further tainted the jury pool.
“Such publicity has been inflammatory and unfair and created such hostility toward the defendant and prejudiced the members of the community to such a degree that it is unlikely a jury could be selected which could render a verdict solely on the evidence presented at a trial,” the motion stated.
Bristow moved the trial to Fort Worth and will preside over the case.
This report includes material from The Associated Press
Mitch Mitchell, 817-390-7752