A San Mateo couple admitted this afternoon, on the eve of their trial, to burglarizing the Sonoma home of a family that had died in a vehicle crash just days before.
Michael Vincent Gutierrez, 27, pleaded guilty in Sonoma County Superior Court to first-degree residential burglary, vehicle theft and vandalism. He faces up to 11 years and eight months in prison.
Amber True, 29, pleaded no contest to the same charges. She faces a maximum eight-year prison term.
Their trial was scheduled to start Friday, but instead a sentencing date will be set Sept. 1.
The couple was charged with breaking into the home of John and Susan Maloney, both 42, on Nov. 30, 2009, destroying furniture, walls and doors and stealing John Maloney's 2006 Nissan 350z the day after the Maloneys and their two children, ages 5 and 8, were killed in a car crash on state Highway 37 and Lakeville Road.
Gutierrez denied he and True knew the family had just perished in the crash.
"He truly did not know the family died in the crash. If he was a hardcore person, we would be at trial," his attorney, Karen Silver, said after he pleaded guilty late this afternoon.
There was a memorial on the front steps of the Maloney home on Fryer Creek Drive, but Gutierrez and True entered the house through a dog door on the side of the house, Silver said.
Deputy District Attorney Michael Li said Gutierrez was informed by a San Mateo resident familiar with real estate listings that the Maloney house was unoccupied.
Gutierrez also has a case pending in Santa Clara County regarding a first-degree burglary of a Los Altos house.
That unoccupied house was still furnished and was being shown for sale, Li said.
Li said Gutierrez also likely cased the Maloney house for the easiest way to get in and would have noticed the memorial for the family.
News of the burglary shocked and repulsed the community.
"The case touched the emotional nature in all of us. It touched raw nerves," Li said.
Members of the Maloney family, including a daughter named Molly who was not in the family's 2004 Nissan Quest when it collided with a 2009 Mini Cooper, were scheduled to testify at the trial, Li said.
"The prosecution is satisfied with the outcome and that the defendants accepted responsibility for this crime," Li said. "We're relieved we don't have to put the family through this process and to have to relive this terrible tragedy."
Silver said Gutierrez had expressed concern about Molly Maloney having to testify and that he cooperated in returning the stolen property to the Maloney family.
She said that by pleading guilty, Gutierrez was giving up the main argument that would have been made during the trial: that the burglary was second-degree, not first-degree, because the house was not occupied.
Both Gutierrez and True also admitted this afternoon they were out on bail pending trial on other charges in San Mateo County when they burglarized the Maloney home.
Gutierrez faces weapons, stolen property, and drug possession charges, and True faces drug charges in San Mateo County.
They were arrested for the burglary in San Mateo County on Dec. 1, 2009, after True was found with a credit card and other property from the Maloney home during a traffic stop. Gutierrez was driving the stolen 2006 Nissan when he was arrested.
Li said Sonoma and San Mateo county law enforcement officers "did an outstanding job catching the suspects so quickly."
Gutierrez also admitted this afternoon he has three prior convictions since 2003 for crimes committed in San Mateo County.
True is out of custody, and Gutierrez remains in the Sonoma County jail.