A state appellate court has upheld the first-degree murder conviction of a Santa Maria man accused of killing his mother and dumping her body in Orange County five years ago.

Gabriel Antonio Espinoza

Convicted in the murder of his mother, Gabriel Antonio Espinoza is serving a sentence of 25 years to life in state prison. (La Habra Police Department photo)

Gabriel Antonio Espinoza, now 34, was arrested five months after the body of his mother, Emma Posadas-Espinoza, 58, of Lompoc, was discovered near an apartment complex in La Habra in July 2014.

While an Orange County Superior Court jury did not determine Espinoza killed his mother for financial gain, the panel found him guilty of first-degree murder, leading to the appeal filed by Santa Barbara attorney David Andreasen.

“On appeal, defendant contends there was insufficient evidence of premeditation and deliberation to support the verdict,” the appellate court opinion said. “He accordingly argues the judgment violates his due process rights.

“We reject defendant’s contentions and affirm the judgment.”

The Fourth District Court of Appeal reviewed the case before the three-judge panel issued the opinion Friday.

Espinoza and his mother reportedly had a strained relationship amid his money woes. At the time of the killing, he was jobless and his vehicle had been repossessed.

Posadas-Espinoza and her Acura sedan disappeared around July 17, 2014. Her body was found days later near an apartment complex where the defendant had lived 10 years earlier.

An autopsy revealed Espinoza had multiple contusions on her body consistent with a violent struggle along with rib fractures and a neck fracture which was consistent with her body being forced into a tight location like the trunk of a car, according to the appellate opinion.

The Orange County medical examiner determined the death was a homicide due to asphyxiation by chest compression, and that the injuries were consistent with someone straddling her and placing an object over her mouth.

The son’s actions, including calling police to say his mother was missing but declining to file a missing person report, sparked suspicions early in the investigation.

Hours after being notified of his mother’s death, Espinoza reportedly went to her work site to discuss her life insurance policy. She had listed her son as the sole beneficiary of her insurance policy as well as her retirement account.

“Defendant contends there was insufficient evidence of premeditation and deliberation,” the appellate judges said. “We disagree.”

The case involved substantial evidence of planning, the opinion said, noting that Posadas-Espinoza was attacked while sleeping since she was wearing only her underwear, which was consistent with what she typically wore to bed.

Testimony during the trial outlined their strained relationship, which had resulted in the two not talking for four months before the killing, and the fact she had taken back the defendant’s key to her house, angering him.

“Although the jury found the murder was not committed for financial gain, there was evidence (the) defendant had been estranged from Espinoza, was financially struggling, asked Espinoza for financial help, and left Espinoza’s house angry on July 14,” the appellate judges said. “A reasonable jury could find defendant had a motive to kill Espinoza.”

The defendant allegedly abandoned his mother’s car on a street in Santa Maria, and investigators found a significant amount of dog hair and saliva in the vehicle, with the DNA matching Espinoza’s Rottweiler.

The son’s DNA was found on the driver’s seat, passenger’s front seat, and gas cap, while his mother’s blood was located in the trunk.

After the killing, Espinoza reportedly used his mother’s debit card and car and allegedly offered to sell the vehicle to a friend. He also allegedly told a friend to lie to police about where he had been that weekend and used his mother’s cell phone to lie that she had a family emergency.

“The jury could consider these actions to be inconsistent with a rash and impulsive killing,” the ruling said.

In December 2017, Espinoza was sentenced to spend 25 years to life in state prison. He is incarcerated in Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, southeast of Sacramento.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at jscully@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.