Fort Worth

Suspect in Black Friday murder scheme sentenced to life in prison

A woman suspected of helping kill a former co-worker on the shopping day known as Black Friday in 2014 was found guilty of capital murder Thursday and will spend the rest of her life in prison.

Prosecutors called Carter Carol Cervantez the mastermind of a murder/robbery plot involving thousands of dollars.

Cervantez, who entered the courtroom shackled and looking frail, had testified that she had no knowledge of her co-worker’s killing, was asleep when it took place and was forced by her boyfriend to participate in a robbery.

But prosecutors said not only did Cervantez help plan and participate in the murder of Ashlea Harris, an assistant manager at the store where Cervantez and her live-in boyfriend, Clarence David Mallory, once worked, but that the two were also planning to rob their previous employer’s store in Abilene.

Chuck Cassity, Harris’ stepfather, read from a victim impact statement written by Harris’ mother and other relatives. After the verdict was read to a packed courtroom, Cassity said that the family, which has several members serving in law enforcement, has been waiting for justice to take its course and will return when Mallory’s trial takes place.

“What I would like to say is for every one of the last remaining days of your life, I want you to suffer as much as Ashlea did on the final day of her life,” Cassity said.

Police have said they believe that Cervantez, 27, and Mallory, 21, beat and bound Harris and then set her body on fire to steal her keys to the store so that they could take the store’s cash.

Harris’ body was found Nov. 28, 2014, in her apartment, tied at the ankles and wrists, facedown at the foot of her bed, which was blackened by fire.

Tarrant County prosecutor Kevin Rousseau told the court Thursday that Cervantez and Mallory were planning to rob the American Eagle Outfitters Abilene Mall store, just like they had robbed the Hulen Mall American Eagle store that August.

“There was extensive planning,” Rousseau said. “And this rebuts the defense’s theory that she was not acting on her will alone.”

Cervantez testified Thursday that she believed her boyfriend was having a sexual relationship with an assistant manager at the American Eagle Outfitters in Abilene. Prosecutors presented evidence that Cervantez took pictures of the assistant manager’s car and planned to slash one of her tires.

Rousseau said that Cervantez, who testified Wednesday that she was raped when she did not do what Mallory wanted, manipulated Mallory. It was not, as Cervantez suggested during her testimony, the other way around, Rousseau said.

“I’m not letting Mallory off the hook,” Rousseau said. “I will prosecute David Mallory. But he’s not the first man to be manipulated by an older woman.”

Cell tower data

An investigator testified that phone traffic between Cervantez and her boyfriend showed that they were staking out the Abilene store more than two weeks before Harris was slain.

Mark Sedwick, a digital analyst with the FBI’s Dallas office, testified Thursday that data from cell towers show that Cervantez and Mallory were near the Abilene mall on Nov. 11, 2014, when they sent incriminating text messages.

In a text message about 10:45 p.m. that day, Mallory wrote to Cervantes, “There’s no way this place doesn’t have a back door.”

Then Cervantez responded by text: “I haven’t seen the little [American Eagle] manager come back out. Maybe I just missed him.”

Shortly before 6 p.m. the next day, Cervantez texted Mallory that she had found the back door. “It comes out really close to the only location with cameras,” she added.

“Well, that’s what the masks are for,” he replied.

Mallory, who appeared in the courtroom briefly Thursday to plead the Fifth Amendment, is also charged with capital murder. His trial is pending.

Because prosecutors are not seeking the death penalty against either defendant, Cervantez was automatically sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

During his closing arguments, defense attorney Steve Gordon said that several people convicted by juries have now been exonerated and that the jury in this case should be concerned about the quality of the evidence that was presented.

“If the intent to murder Ashlea was developed by Mr. Mallory and some others, would it be smart, would it be wise to bring along someone who could have been blown away by a strong breeze?” Gordon asked, referring to his client’s slight stature.

Bill Ray, who also represented Cervantez, said that out of more than 400 exhibits filed by prosecutors with the court, none place Cervantez inside Harris’ apartment when she was killed.

“The state cannot prove that Cervantez was in that room or that she got David Mallory to go in that room,” Ray told jurors. “That is the question that we have you in here to answer.”

During his closing arguments, Rousseau told the jury that Cervantez had a lot of lies to remember. Jurors had an important but not terribly difficult decision to make, Rousseau said, and should know when they are being lied to.

“For a person who is capable of beating someone to death and strangling them in their own home, lying is not a big deal,” Rousseau said.

Mitch Mitchell: 817-390-7752, @mitchmitchel3