CHULA VISTA, Calif. (CNS) - A man who opened fire on a group of employees at an Otay Mesa fast food restaurant, killing one of them, was sentenced Tuesday to 146 years to life in prison.
Albert Lee Blake, 51, was found guilty by a Chula Vista jury last month of murder and attempted murder counts stemming from the Nov. 6, 2019, shooting at the Church's Chicken restaurant at 3726 Del Sol Blvd.
Maribel Merino Ibanez, 28, was killed in the shooting, while two other employees were hospitalized. Another worker was fired upon, but was not struck by the gunfire, according to prosecutors.
Deputy District Attorney Mary Loeb said Blake tried to use a counterfeit $100 bill to purchase food, but was rebuffed by Ibanez.
The prosecutor said he then left the restaurant and went to his car where he "prepared himself to kill over this slight" by changing clothes in order to better conceal a 9mm pistol he planned to take back into the eatery, then re-positioning his car near the restaurant's exit so he could easily escape.
After the shooting, Blake fled the state and was arrested later that month in Memphis, Tennessee.
Ibanez's family members, as well as some of the employees who were shot at, addressed Blake and the court at his sentencing hearing Tuesday morning.
Ramon Mendoza, Ibanez's husband of less than a year at the time she was killed, said he wanted Blake to know "that even if a hundred years go by, it won't be enough, because I won't get my wife back."
Ibanez's mother, Emma Merino, asked for as long a sentence as possible, saying "I know it won't bring my daughter back ... but at least he won't harm nobody else."
Mario Rojas, one of the employees who was shot in the stomach and arm, said he'd sustained serious damage to his body. Rojas, who used the assistance of a cane during the hearing, said that despite the shooting's ramifications on his life, "I know I have to be strong and continue my life. I'm glad to be here."
San Diego Superior Court Judge Timothy Walsh called the case "one of the most callous and senseless I've ever seen," and said Blake "deserves the maximum possible punishment under the law."
Though no surveillance footage was available from inside the restaurant, investigators located images of the shooter's vehicle through smart street-light cameras, according to Loeb.
The prosecutor said investigators pinned the vehicle down as a Dodge Charger, and found that Blake had been contacted by police on prior occasions that year in a similar vehicle.
With Blake identified as the driver, Loeb said his phone records helped police track down his girlfriend. At her home, police found the same brand of ammunition used in the shooting, as well as Blake's car. Inside the car were two counterfeit $100 bills with Blake's fingerprints on them, Loeb said. The car's steering wheel and gearshift also tested positive for gunshot residue, according to the prosecutor.
Loeb claimed Blake's cell phone was also in the area of the shooting on Nov. 6 and did not move from that location until just after the shooting occurred. Another cell phone tied to Blake contained pictures of him with a similar haircut and clothes matching descriptions of the shooter. By tracking that second phone, police were able to locate him in Tennessee, Loeb said.
Defense attorney Katie Nagler told jurors that Blake was wrongfully accused, saying police "honed in on Mr. Blake in less than 48 hours, and everything afterwards was built around making him their suspect."
The attorney said the identification of the shooter's vehicle as a Dodge Charger was based on assumptions made by investigators, who she said could not have positively identified the car's make and model through the images provided them by smart street lights. Once police discovered Blake had a similar vehicle as the shooter, "they were glued to him," Nagler said.
According to the defense attorney, no forensic evidence such as DNA or fingerprints tied Blake to the restaurant, and the witnesses' identifications of the suspect were unreliable. Though all the witnesses generally described the shooter as a tall Black man, Nagler said other details regarding the suspect differed among witness accounts.