A Santa Maria Superior Court judge on Friday agreed that the killing of a father of two in Old Town Orcutt was a senseless crime and said the circumstances led him to sentence Jonathan Highley to 54 years to life in state prison, rather than a shorter time.
A jury convicted Highley, 37, of Orcutt in November of first-degree murder and assault with a firearm for the fatal shooting of Anthony “Tony” San Juan of Santa Maria and for threatening a woman on March 4, 2017, in a parking lot behind Elmer’s bar.
The shooting occurred after an intoxicated Highley was involved in multiple fights inside and outside the bar, leading him to enter his nearby home, obtain the gun and shoot San Juan, who was not involved in any of the altercations with the defendant.
“He could have just gone home and stayed home, but he didn’t,” Judge Gustavo Lavayen said, adding later that he did not impose the sentence lightly. “The court is also cognizant of the fact that no only did he commit this senseless act, but he also engaged in effort to cover it up, placing his whole family at risk.”
Before handing down the sentence, Lavayen heard emotional victim impact statements from San Juan’s widow and mom about how the killing has affected their family.
“Jonathan Highley will never fully grasp how he broke so many hearts, shook our existence and how the lives of two beautiful, innocent children will forever be filled with a void,” Sara San Juan said.
She said that instead of waking up next to him each morning, she instead rolls over after a nightmare to find the space where he once slept. Rather than readying for a date with her husband, she instead hides in the shower because it’s the only place their children did not see her sobbing.
Her husband was caring, fun loving, considerate and hardworking with an immense love for his family, friends and community.
She called Highley “a sorry excuse for a father, a pathetic example of a member of this great nation’s armed forces, a sorry excuse for a husband, friend and family member.”
“I can see exactly what kind of person Jonathan Highley is,” she said. “He is the type of person that no one shows up for. I haven’t seen anyone here to support him, most likely because he lives his life so selfishly and insensitively.”
While 600 people attended her husband’s celebration of life, San Juan said a second character witness failed to show up to testify on Highley’s behalf during the trial.
Tony San Juan’s mother, Cheryl, spoke about giving birth to him as a teen and working to keep him healthy, happy and safe.
Parents should not have to bury their child, she added, recalling the horrendous phone call from her grandson saying two men were talking to his mother, who was crying outside.
Since her son’s murder, their lives have been turned upside down, Cheryl San Juan said.
“We miss him so much,” she said, adding that they forgive Highley because they don’t want to live with “anger in our hearts.”
Highley did not speak during Friday’s hearing, but his attorney, Mark Owens, said his client was remorseful and takes responsibility for his actions.
The defense attorney spoke about his client’s past. Highley served more than 12 years in the U.S. Navy and was honorably discharged. But the man clearly is an alcoholic and has enrolled in a treatment program while incarcerated in the county jail, the attorney said.
Owens had argued for a lesser sentence, which Deputy District Attorney Anne Nudson opposed.
Most homicides involve a suspect who has a direct or indirect relationship, something lacking in this case.
“In this instance, Mr. Highley killed a man who was just at a bar that night,” she said. “It was a senseless, thoughtless execution of an innocent person who was just going about their regular life. This type of murder … is a devastating and horrific senseless crime that clearly the family is still trying to make sense of, the community is trying to make sense of.”
The judge also ordered Highley to pay $8,472 to the Califoria Victims Compensation Board and $74,542 to San Juan’s widow.
Highley’s wife also was arrested in connection with crime for being an accessory in helping him attempt to flee after the shooting. Mayra Ortiz was sentenced to 365 days in state prison and later deported to Mexico.