He rose early on the morning of February 1, 2021, and according to the prosecution he was ready to complete a deadly mission. It had been one year and five months since she had left him. He had tried everything to win her back, but she was gone. It was a fact he could not accept. When his actions moved into stalking, fearing for her life, she sought help from the court and took all measures to protect herself. Now she was in love with another, engaged to be married. It was too much for him to bear.
On February 1, 2021, Jesse Alvarez rose at dawn, clothed himself in all black, and drove to wait silently outside his ex’s fiancée’s home in North Park. It was 6:13 a.m. Just after 7:00 a.m. Mario Fierro, a 37-year-beloved teacher and coach at Cathedral Catholic High School, emerged. Jesse Alvarez soon opened fire, seven shots in total, leaving Mario Fierro dead on the ground.
But what transpired between the two before the deadly shots rang out? Was it a premeditated ambush as the prosecution claims? Did Jesse Alvarez see Mario Fierro as his arch nemesis, so filled with burning jealousy he had to destroy him? Was it the ultimate revenge against his ex-girlfriend, to kill the person she most loved? Or was it as Jesse’s attorney contends an act of self-defense?
On February 9, 2022, a preliminary hearing was held in the San Diego courtroom of Judge Daniel Goldstein. Although a preliminary hearing is not a full trial but meant merely to determine whether probable cause exists to order the accused to stand trial, devastating details were released of Mario’s final day and Jesse Alvarez’ descent into obsession. The prosecution was headed by Ramona McCarthy and the defense by attorneys Peter Blair and Kerry Armstrong.
The courtroom was filled with family, friends, and students who loved Mario so. During breaks they would gather in the court hallway, forming a circle of sorts, united in their unwavering support, tethered in tremendous grief. They awaited justice. Yet nothing could bring back Mario Fierro, and hearts and lives were shattered at the loss of a kind and loving man. And Mario Fierro by all accounts was an angel on this earth.
Mario Fierro Was the Absolute Best of Humanity
Mario Fierro was passionate, energetic, dedicated, and had a heart filled with love for all. As a teacher and coach at Cathedral Catholic High School, he had found his calling and was known for caring and truly listening. On the night of his death, one student with tears in his eyes said Mario Fierro believed in him when no one else did. At his memorial service, another student relayed how even though she had gone off to college, when she needed help, she could still contact Coach Fierro and he would be there. It was no wonder the song “Lean On Me” was sung by the students in the service’s final closing.
And when the best of humanity is killed, we are left to ask, “Why?” and then to question “How could this have happened?”
Who is Jesse Alvarez?
As eyes turned toward Jesse Alvarez, facts reveal he is a young man, only 31 years of age, who had so much seemingly going for him. As a dual citizen of Peru and the United States, he is highly educated, studying for a master’s degree in International Relations at the University of San Diego and holding a leadership position as vice chair of the Graduate and Law Student Council. He had worked as a computer technician and as an external information specialist. He comes from a good family where his parents ran a missionary. He too was deeply religious, faithfully attending the Rock church.
Now Jesse Alvarez is charged with first-degree murder, with the special circumstances of lying-in-wait, making him eligible for the death penalty if the prosecution so chooses capital punishment.
People are left to wonder how it came to this. If the horrible facts are true, were signs missed of how dangerous he really was?
Jesse Alvarez Took Shooting Lessons and Asked How to Kill
The preliminary hearing got underway, and the first witness called was San Diego County District Attorney investigator Osvaldo Cruz who testified on December 27, 2020, Jesse purchased three classes with Poway Weapons and Gear Range. The classes were purchased on-line as Jesse was in Peru at the time. The owner thought such a purchase was strange, stating, “Something made him want to sign up for three classes on the same day.” On January 18, 2021, two weeks before the shooting, Jesse took two classes at the range, one at 9:00 a.m. and one at 1:00 p.m. Jesse took the third class on January 22, 2021. He also purchased six boxes of ammunition, all nine-millimeter.
While on the gun range, Jesse asked the instructor, “Where’s the best place to shoot someone to kill them?” Followed by, “What about the back of the head?” This stood out to the instructor because of the use of the word “kill.”
Osvaldo also testified that on December 11, 2021, Jesse dropped off two firearms, a Glock 19 and a Ruger rifle to Orange County Custom Coating, requesting both firearms be coated all white. He picked them up on January 21, 2021.
On cross-examination, attorney Peter Blair attempted to show a more innocuous reason for the classes. Weren’t the classes designed for safety and wasn’t it responsible to sign up for all classes at once he queried.
Mario’s Fiancée Testifies in Tears and Agony
Amy Gembara, dressed in all black and with her blond hair pulled tightly back in a ponytail made her way to the witness stand. Beside her was a victim advocate, providing constant support. It was clear from the very beginning Amy was in agonizing pain. She struggled to speak, often closing her eyes, as long, long pauses filled the courtroom. At last, she would answer. But never would she look at Jesse Alvarez or his attorneys. When asked to point him out, she gestured forcefully with her right hand.
Amy was once a teacher at Cathedral Catholic, teaching 10th and 11th grades and also religion. For the past year, she has worked as a chaplain in a private institution, having worked as a chaplain off and on for the past seven to eight years. She said her Roman Catholic faith is the most important thing to her.
When speaking of Mario, she talked about him in the present, saying, “Mario Fierro is my fiancée.” Amy said she went on a date with Mario in February 2020, and by March 7, 2020, she was in a relationship with him. Growing very emotional and speaking every word with full emphasis, she said, “It was the most genuine, authentic, and loving relationship I have ever been in in my life.” “He is patient and loyal.” Again, the present tense. Breaking down completely, she said on December 19, 2020, Mario proposed to her. “We shared dreams, goals, and visions together,” Amy said, before talking about their plans to have a family one day.
Moving to her time with Jesse Alvarez, Amy’s pause was so long it was as if she could never speak of him again. Finally, she began. They started dating in June of 2015. On September 1, 2019, she ended the relationship, but Jesse “did not take no for an answer.”
Amy continued, “Several days later, he wanted to meet up again. I told him no again. A few days after that, he attempted to break into my apartment.” She contacted the police and sent Jesse an e-mail telling him not to communicate with her and that she did not want to be in a relationship with him.
Yet Jesse called her using his parent’s cell phone and followed her at a theme park. Fearing for her safety, Amy sought a restraining order. A temporary restraining order was granted, but when the case went to a formal hearing on January 22, 2020, a permanent order was denied. (To learn more about this, please read my article, “Deadly Obsession and a Restraining Order Denied,” on my website).
Jesse continued to contact her. He left multiple messages on her work phone at Cathedral Catholic stating he wanted to talk. He sent her certified mailings and postcards from Peru. They arrived at her new address; one she had never given to him. Amy testified she had had to move. In the writings, Jesse talked about old memories they had together, such as a trip to Washington, D.C. One postcard she received after her engagement after Jesse saw on-line “engaged to my beloved.” A second postcard even arrived after Mario’s death.
At the mention of Mario, prosecutor McCarthy then asked Amy when Mario passed away. Amy could not answer. The silence seemed to stretch for an eternity as Amy struggled. McCarthy told her to take all the time she needed. Judge Goldstein looked on with compassion. At last, through tears, she answered, “Mario passed away February 1, 2021.” She had talked to him that very morning. Amy relayed Mario would text her every morning, writing “Good morning my love,” or “Good morning my sweet fiancée.” At 6:59 a.m. he said, “Good morning my sweet fiancée,” and ended with, “I’ll see you soon.”
Prosecutor McCarthy then returned to Jesse Alvarez, taking Amy to the times Jesse went onto the Cathedral Catholic campus. Amy stated it occurred twice. In October 2020, two administrators came to her classroom to tell her Jesse was on the campus. Jesse had received a job in the school cafeteria. He was escorted off campus, but did not go willingly. The second time Jesse showed up for a mass in January of 2021. It was the first public mass since the pandemic, and although Amy thought about attending, she did not out of fear for her safety. At this point, Amy asked for a break.
After the break, attorney Blair stood up to cross-examine her. He asked when she broke up with Jesse. Amy took so long to answer it seemed like she simply was not going to. Again, it was clear: Amy Gembara was in agony.
There were no attempts to reconcile between the time of the breakup and the restraining order Blair wanted to know. Amy said between September 1st and 6th of 2019, she agreed to meet one last time and told Jesse she did not want to be in a relationship. Amy’s voice now turned hard and angry as she said after the meeting, she sent Jesse an email stating she did not want to be contacted or in a relationship with him.
Attorney Blair then raised that after the restraining order was denied, Jesse didn’t contact her for six months. After a long, long pause, Amy said it was four to six months. But she said Jesse did contact her in “various forms,” such as the certified mailings. She reported this to law enforcement.
Blair next said the certified letters had no threat of violence. Amy agreed. Then Blair asked, “To this day Mr. Alvarez has not contacted you in a form of threat, correct?” Amy asked him to define threat. She then went on to say there was no oral or written threat, but there was a physical threat when she attempted to break up with him. Jesse threatened suicide. Amy also said on September 6, 2019, he blocked her from leaving her apartment. After that, she became scared, so she changed the locks and installed security cameras.
Approximately five days later, she received a notification on her phone and saw Jesse with a hood, grabbing her door handle. With her voice breaking, Amy said she filed a police report and stayed with friends. As the cross-examination concluded, Amy confirmed she received a postcard after her engagement, and she did not attend the mass because she did not feel safe.
A Witness Sees Men Fighting and Hears Gunshots
Alexia Azpeitia lived in a two-story apartment on the 4500 block of Kansas Street. At 7:05 on the morning of February 1, 2021, she was looking for parking on Kansas Street, driving along slowly. She looked over and saw two men fighting, “throwing punches,” with one man overpowering the other. One male had a white object in his hand which he was pointing towards the other man, and he looked angry. The other man looked like he was trying to get away and looked scared. On the stand she said at the time she thought the white object was a thermometer. “Because it is COVID season, this might sound a bit silly, but I thought maybe he was checking his temperature.” She drove away, but while at a stop sign on Kansas and Monroe, she heard gunshots. “I was in shock” she testified. She drove back and saw a man on the ground. She called police.
Later when interviewed she told a detective she saw a Hispanic man get into a hatch back sedan, leaving northbound.
A Witness Sees a Black Volkswagen Golf Drive Northbound
David Lamb lived in a second-floor apartment in the 4500 block of Kansas Street. His window faced Kansas Street. On February 1, 2021, he was awakened by gunshots. He fell back asleep, but then heard more. He looked out his window and saw a man on the ground and saw a black Volkswagen Golf drive northbound. He knew it was such a car as he had several friends who owned Volkswagen Golfs.
He did not call police at the time, but later went downstairs to walk his dog and saw the police were there.
Police Officer Tries to Save Mario
San Diego Police Officer Bryan Stefan testified he arrived at the scene at 7:11 a.m. He saw a male with a gunshot wound to the head, and brain matter coming out. There was no pulse, so he started CPR. He gave the man CPR for 10-15 minutes until the paramedics arrived. They told Officer Stefan he was deceased.
Seven Gunshots in 15 Seconds
Homicide Detective and Sergeant Christopher Leahy testified at 8:44 p.m. on February 1, 2021, a tip was sent to Crime Stoppers accompanied with an in-home surveillance video. The sender wished to remain anonymous. On the tape, seven gunshots were heard. After the first gunshot, there was a six second pause before the second shot. Voices sounded between the first and second shot.
After Sergeant Leahy’s description, the actual audio was played in the courtroom. Booming shots and voices of panic. Amy shook her head and closed her eyes. I was in pain hearing those final moments, so Amy’s pain must have been unbearable.
On cross-examination, attorney Armstrong discussed the seven shots, bringing out they occurred over 15 seconds. He went on to state on February 1, 2021, a two-hour interview was conducted with Jesse who said the shooting was in self-defense. Armstrong then asked, “Would Jesse Alvarez’ version be reasonable with the cadence of the shots?” Sergeant Leahy answered he would have to look at why Jesse was there in the first place.
Armstrong also brought out Jesse was in Peru from December 12, 2020, until January 14, 2021, on a missionary trip.
Jesse’s Mother Testifies
Subpoenaed by the prosecution to testify, Cynthia Alvarez took the witness stand and said she has three boys: Jesse, Jason, and Ryan. Jesse is 31. When asked to identify her son in court, she looked over at him, first waved before describing what he was wearing.
She said she has lived in Rancho Cucamonga with her husband since October of 2012. Jesse lived with them until January 12, 2021, when he moved to Serra Mesa, a community in San Diego, to live with his brother Ryan.
Mrs. Alvarez said Jesse was an “excellent student.” He attended college at Azusa Pacific, majoring in history and political science, before transferring to Westmont, where he graduated. He went to the University of San Diego, studying for a master’s in international relations and history, although he did not graduate.
When asked if Jesse had any cognitive issues, she looked over to the defense table, seemingly for help, before stating she did not expect questions like this. Nevertheless, she finally answered, “nothing that was told by professionals.” She then added, “He was kind.”
She said she knew Amy as Amy was Jesse’s girlfriend and she herself had been Amy’s mentor. Mrs. Alvarez explained she was in full time ministry. When Amy broke up with Jesse he was “brokenhearted.” For the Christmas holidays in 2020, the Alvarez family went to visit family in Peru and Jesse told her Amy was dating someone. “He was brokenhearted.” When asked by prosecutor McCarthy if Jesse told her Amy was engaged and he found it out on-line, Mrs. Alvarez said he may have told her about the engagement while they were in Peru.
She went on to testify that after the breakup she told Jesse to move on. She also told him it was a bad idea to apply for a job at Cathedral Catholic. She said Jesse thought Amy would be impressed he was working at the same school. She further stated Jesse went to mass hoping Amy would see him. She told Jesse to stay away from Amy.
Mrs. Alvarez was aware Jesse had guns and that they were painted white. She also knew one gun case looked like a guitar case. She said the cases were made that way to prevent them from being stolen if they were seen inside a vehicle. She was also aware Jesse was taking shooting lessons.
On February 1, 2021, her and her husband were in San Diego visiting Jesse and Ryan. They were staying at Ryan’s house, and everyone planned to work on renovations on the house that day. She knows now Jesse left in the morning but doesn’t know when he left as she was sleeping. When asked why her and her husband kept calling Jesse that morning, she said it was because Jesse was not home, and he was supposed to help with the renovations. But Jesse’s cell phone had been left in his room. McCarthy said she told a detective it was unusual for Jesse to leave his phone at home. Now on the witness stand, she said Jesse was like an “absent minded professor.”
McCarthy also said she told the detective they were calling Jesse because they were concerned Jesse had taken Ryan’s car. Ryan’s car was a dark blue Golf. Although on the stand denying her husband was upset Jesse took the car and that was the reason he was calling, she said Ryan did not like it when Jesse took his new car.
Jesse returned to the home between 7:30 to 8:00 a.m. He said he was exercising, walking on a trail. McCarthy raised she told detectives she did not believe Jesse because he was wearing black jeans, a long black shirt, and black shoes. They were not exercise clothes.
When addressing Jesse’s demeanor, Mrs. Alvarez testified Jesse acted “very normal,” had breakfast, and started on the home renovations. But he did take a shower before starting the renovations.
On cross-examination, Mrs. Alvarez stated Jesse was “very brokenhearted” and had a hard time accepting the breakup. She said they brought him to Rancho Cucamonga to live with them as they thought it was better for him. While there, Jesse worked three jobs.
On redirect by prosecutor McCarthy, she said the detectives did not tell them about the shooting until they finished their questioning. When the detectives told her Jesse was involved in a shooting, she “couldn’t believe Jesse shot anyone.”
Surveillance Videos Capture Hatch Back Vehicle and Gunshots
Homicide Detective Ricardo Escalante testified he searched for surveillance footage around the scene of the shooting. Based on the information received from Alexia Azpeitiz that she saw a suspect in a hatch back sedan leaving northbound towards Madison, he looked for the vehicle on surveillance footage. A resident on Madison showed him home surveillance. A dark colored hatchback turned onto Madison between 7:10 and 7:15 a.m. on February 1, 2021.
A second surveillance obtained from Leon Market showed the vehicle continuing eastbound. After learning Jesse left his residence early, Detective Escalante reviewed the tapes again and saw the vehicle arriving at 6:13 a.m. and parking on Madison. The video further captured loud bangs, from 7:09.27 to 7:09.42.
Detective Escalante also obtained footage from a resident who lived next to the home where Jesse was staying with his brother. At 6:06 a.m. lights backed out of Jesse’s residence. The camera showed it was a Golf vehicle. It took only eight minutes to arrive at Madison.
Kansas Street surveillance showed the Golf arrived at 6:13 and left at 07:09 going northbound.
Guns Are Found and Jesse Kept a Framed Photograph of Amy
Detective Escalante testified a search warrant was executed at Jesse’s home on February 1, 2021. In the garage, concealed behind a microwave they found a Glock 19 handgun with two loaded cartridges. On a garage shelf, they found a guitar case which contained a rifle with four magazines. Two were high capacity.
In Jesse’s closet they found Cathedral Catholic attire, including a sweatshirt, hat, and shirt. On a dresser was a framed photograph of Jesse and Amy.
Detective Escalante further testified Maria Zequerro, a friend of both Mario and Amy, sent him screenshots of the couple’s Instagram accounts. Mario posted the engagement news on his Instagram account on December 19, 2020. Amy posted it to hers on December 22, 2020.
Detective Escalante also relayed Michelle Adams saw Jesse at a rally at Cathedral Catholic. He was dressed in the school’s red color, and she said he gave off a “creeper vibe.”
Mario Was On His Knees, Shot Near the Ground Says Detective
Homicide Detective Ron Newquist arrived at the scene of the shooting at 8:10 a.m. He saw the body covered with a tarp and blood running towards the gutter. The body was next to a Mini Cooper which still had its truck open, and inside he could see a Cathedral Catholic golf bag. The keys were nearby. The apartment door was also left open and inside they found a wallet with identification of Mario Fierro.
Detective Newquist went on to describe the wounds Mario sustained. First, though the detective stated Mario was found on top of his cell phone. Mario was hit six times, with two shots to the back of the head, two between the eyebrows, one to his back, and one to his right arm. Detective Newquist stated the shots occurred at or near the ground, and there was blood spatter up the side of a nearby Toyota. Mario’s jeans were torn, and his knees bloodied, indicating he was on his knees at one point.
On cross-examination, Detective Newquist explained the reason he believed Mario was shot near the ground was because the bullet jackets were so deformed. Attorney Blair then asked if the torn jeans and scraped knees indicated a struggle. He went further by stating it was not an execution because there was a struggle. Detective Newquist dismissed such inquiries, stating pointedly “I’m biased because of other information I learned from the defendant.”
Jesse Searched the Internet Extensively for Ways to Kill
Detective Newquist next detailed Jesse’s internet searches, stating “this was a goal-oriented murder.” The search history was so extensive it filled a 152-page document. Every day Jesse searched about Amy. Soon he also looked up Mario’s information. Then in the months leading up to the murder, particularly the month of December 2020, Jesse started searching for ways to kill.
Detective Newquist rattled off the endless searches so quickly it made your head spin. On and on he went. Although there was no way I could document it all, some of the searches included: How to shoot and kill someone. How to hire a hitman. How to shoot someone in self-defense. How to kill your ex’s fiancée. How to kill someone without leaving forensic evidence. How to shoot in the rain. Will a shot to the head from a nine-millimeter kill you? And on and on.
Detective Newquist further testified on the morning of the shooting or the night before, a search was made for: How to not flinch when shooting. Jesse looked up the weather forecast for February 1, 2021.
The computer forensics also showed Jesse had gone by Mario’s residence and taken photographs sometime between mid-December 2020 and February 1, 2021. He also had photographs of Amy and Mario on vacation.
Stipulation Regarding the Autopsy Findings
Both sides agreed to the autopsy findings and a stipulation was read into the record. Mario Fierro sustained six gunshots, four to the head, including two to the back of the head, and two to the forehead. Other gunshot wounds were to his back and right arm. The cause of death was gunshots and the manner homicide.
Arguments from the Attorneys & Judge Goldstein’s Ruling
Attorney Blair asked Judge Goldstein to not bind Jesse over for trial on the charge of lying-in-wait. He argued lying-in-wait requires a surprise attack, which was not present here. Jesse drove around the area for 30-40 minutes and there was a struggle, a fight. The scraped knees evidenced a struggle. A witness saw the men fighting and made it to the end of the street before the gunshots were fired.
Prosecutor McCarthy countered lying-in-wait means to ambush and that is what Jesse Alvarez did. He spent ample time educating himself on how to kill Mario Fierro. He left his home at 6:06 a.m. and arrived at Mario’s apartment at 6:13 a.m. He waited almost one hour. Mario was not expecting Jesse. He was loading his car for work. Jesse was armed and executed Mario, firing seven times. Six shots hit Mario, four of which were execution style.
Then it was time to hear from Judge Goldstein. He said, “I don’t think there is any argument this is a premeditated 190.2 killing.” He said lying-in-wait requires lying, watching, waiting. Most important is that it is concealed. Judge Goldstein addressed the Google searches, stating they “were pretty dramatic.” Jesse knew their schedules. He also found dramatic the apartment door open, the wallet left inside, and the car trunk still open. “Something startling had to occur,” he said, before adding “Mario was loading his trunk.”
Judge Goldstein found the special circumstance of lying-in-wait and the special allegation of personal use of a firearm, stating there was ample evidence to bind over. Jesse Alvarez will stand trial for murder.
He will be arraigned on February 24, 2022
To See Television Coverage of the Hearing, Please Go To:
About Aleida K. Wahn, Esq.
I am an attorney, award-winning true crime writer, and legal analyst of criminal cases. I cover criminal trials and writes stories about compelling, gripping, and unforgettable cases that impact our world. I take you into the courtroom in high-profile murder trials, rape cases, crimes of passion, cases involving mental illness, deviant behavior, and more. I have a deep passion for true crime, criminal law, and all aspects of the criminal justice system. I have appeared as an expert on true crime shows, including “48 Hours,” “Snapped,” and “The Dead Files,” and provided legal analysis on high-profile criminal trials on Court TV, the Law & Crime Trial Network, Fox 5 News, ABC 10 News, and KUSI News. I also create and host shows with the Del Mar Television Producers Group, addressing criminal justice and social issues in recent criminal trials.
I provided my insight and legal analysis on Court TV and the Law & Crime Trial Network of the high-profile trial of former NFL star Kellen Winslow Jr. It was a trial that captured the nation as the heralded ex-football star with fame, fortune, and a famous name stood accused of multiple rapes and other sex crimes involving five women. As the trial delved into shocking facts, complicated legal issues, and unexpected twists and turns, I was there for every minute. After the trial, I wrote a book on the case, going behind the headlines to share the extraordinary details of what happened inside the courtroom. Judging Winslow Jr.: From NFL Star to Serial Rapist? Inside the Shocking Rape Trial of Kellen Boswell Winslow II is now available on Amazon.
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