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Guilty verdict in murder trial

JACKSON - Guilty, guilty and guilty. That was the verdict delivered by a Jackson County jury Thursday evening after less than four hours of deliberation.

Juan Humberto Castillo-Alvarez, charged with two counts of aiding and abetting second-degree murder and one count of kidnapping in the 1997 murder of 15-year-old Gregory Sky Erickson, didn't react to the verdict, sitting quietly next to his attorney Louis Kuchera as the documents declaring him guilty were read. This is the second time he has been pronounced guilty in charges stemming from Sky's death - the first was in Iowa courts in 2008 and later overturned in appellate court.

Sky's father, Greg Erickson, was relieved by the verdict, he said. His own father, Marvin Erickson, Sky's grandfather, was equally relieved.

"We're very happy with the results," Marvin stated.

The jury also rendered a positive verdict on all of the aggravating factors in the case, which means Castillo-Alvarez may be subject to upward departures from the sentencing guidelines. Instead of facing just over 300 months in prison, he could be looking at a sentence of up to 37 years.

"We're very proud of the jury for their due diligence in rendering a verdict," said Jackson County Attorney Robert O'Connor, who assisted Minnesota Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank in prosecuting Castillo-Alvarez. "We hope it provides some measure of a sense of accountability for the family."

During closing arguments, Frank had told the jury that the case they were being asked to deliberate was about Sky, who was executed and left for dead, he said.

"It is also about the defendant," Frank stated. "He has everything to do with the execution of Sky."

Castillo-Alvarez, he said, was 30 years old when the murder took place, while Sky was only 15.

"(Castillo-Alvarez) was a drug dealer in town and sold in some pretty good quantities. He was known as 'the man,'" he added. "He was a 30-year-old man dealing drugs with a bunch of kids."

The prosecution acknowledged the fact that Castillo-Alvarez did not pull the trigger on the gun that killed Sky -- that crime lies in the hands of drug dealer Luis Lua -- but Lua, Frank said, was acting in accordance with orders given to him by Castillo-Alvarez.

"That's what you do when you're 'the man.' You get others to do your dirty work," he told the jury.

Kuchera began his closing statement by acknowledging the tragedy of Sky's death.

"He was wrongfully and tragically killed, and he did not deserve to suffer the death that he did," Kuchera stated. "But that is not what this trial is about."

Castillo-Alvarez had no desire or reason to see the teenager dead, Kuchera said, and certainly not over a $1,400 drug debt. He referred to the debt amount as trivial, and said it was not a motive to kill or have somebody killed.

"There is no evidence that (Castillo-Alvarez) was in financial straights. He had no great need for this money," Kuchera told the jury.

There was also no evidence that Castillo-Alvarez knew of the Jackson County farmhouse where Sky's body was abandoned and later burned, he added. The prosecution relied too much on the testimony of people who were self-serving in their desire to take the stand against Castillo-Alvarez. And authorities finding the murder weapon in Castillo-Alvarez's restaurant only proved that he had possession of the gun.

"A very dumb decision, but that doesn't prove he ordered or wanted the killing of Gregory Sky Erickson," Kuchera said. "He knew what a poor choice it was."

Knowing his future in the U.S. was over, Kuchera added, Castillo-Alvarez chose to leave the country where he had lived illegally.

Earlier in the day, Kuchera had only one witness to call to the stand in defense of his client, a woman who is the sister of another drug dealer involved in the case. She stated she saw Castillo-Alvarez the night the murder took place and described him as "upset, like he had been crying."

"He told me he was scared for my brother," Sondra Ortiz said.

Castillo-Alvarez chose not to testify on his own behalf.

After the verdict was delivered, Judge Linda Titus ordered a pre-sentence investigation and Castillo-Alvarez was remanded to the custody of authorities, where he will await the sentencing hearing. According to O'Connor, that hearing could take place in six to eight weeks.