060717 mayra perez

In this file photo is Mayra Perez, 29, who pleaded no contest June 7 to being an accessory to the murder of Anthony "Tony" San Juan on March 4 in Orcutt. She was sentenced to 365 days in County Jail with credit for time served along with five years probation on Wednesday, Aug. 2 at the Santa Maria Superior Court.

Mayra Perez was sentenced on Wednesday to probation and jail time for her role in the murder of Anthony "Tony" San Juan, following an emotional sentencing hearing at Santa Maria Superior Court. 

Perez, an undocumented immigrant, received five years probation and 365 days in County Jail, with 304 days credit for time served, after pleading June 7 to being an accessory to murder after the fact.

She reportedly drove 230 miles from Merced with her four children after receiving a phone call from her husband, Jonathan David Highley, the night of the March 4 shooting at Elmer's bar in Orcutt which killed San Juan. Highley is charged with his murder.

If officials consider her lack of prior history along with credit for time served, Perez could be released as early as next week under supervisory means such as electronic monitoring.

In the packed courtroom, every seat was occupied Wednesday by San Juan's friends and family. Not a dry eye was visible in the audience as San Juan's wife, Sara, and parents spoke about their lifetime sentence of losing a husband and son.

Before Judge Gustavo Lavayen handed down Perez's sentence, the family shared the agony of their loss — on Father's Day, Mother's Day and Tony's birthday, and asked the court to give Perez the maximum punishment.

"Our son did not deserve to die," said Anthony San Juan, Sr. "He deserved to see his children graduate from high school and college, to walk his daughter down the aisle," he continued. "Now Sara and my grandchildren must live with the pain without having a husband, a daddy, to love, hold and protect them." 

San Juan, Sr. said that at first the family was sympathetic toward Perez, but as details were revealed, "it became clearer that a willful choice was made." 

"She intentionally, deliberately committed this act but also placed her own children in a dangerous situation," San Juan, Sr. continued. 

Visibly gathering the courage to face the court and defendant, Sara San Juan read her victim impact statement next, speaking about the emotional aftermath that her family must live with forever. 

Gripping a three-page letter tightly, her knuckles turning white and hands shaking next to balled-up Kleenex strewn on the podium, Sara recalled the kind of man she married, the kind of father and friend the community lost.

"Tony's life wasn't the only one that was lost that night," Sara sobbed. "The life that my seven-year-old daughter, my 11-year-old son and I knew and shared was also taken away." 

She continued: "I cannot comprehend that Mayra didn't think about the person Tony was while she made the 230-mile journey home that night while he lay lifeless in a parking lot." 

While berating Perez for putting her children in a dangerous situation, Sara at the same time expressed hope that Perez will be able to move forward. 

"I have no anger toward her -- I feel sorry for her, the situation, and circumstances she created for herself and her children," she said. Sara San Juan also begged the court to consider imposing the maximum sentence on Perez.

"Being present in court is absolutely devastating to me, and physically and mentally impacts me for weeks, but I will continue to stand for Tony," she finished.

As the projector displayed Tony San Juan's life from childhood to manhood, his days as an athlete at St. Joseph High School and the couple's journey celebrating the birth of their children, scattered sniffles and cries filled the courtroom. 

Perez quietly sat next to her attorney David Bixby, appearing emotionally affected as well. 

Following the presentation, Bixby and prosecutor Anne Nudson argued over whether Perez should be sentenced to 364 or 365 days, because of the impact the number of days would have on her deportation status.

Perez could've turned her car around that night after finding out about the shooting and contacted police, argued Nudson. "Instead, she [returned] to the house, did laundry, waited for police to be gone, then pulled the car up and moved the Victoria's Secret bag that held the murder weapon and went into the house." 

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At the police station, Perez had multiple opportunities to tell the truth, "but it wasn't until the third interview after police found the gun that she finally started to talk about what happened that night," continued Nudson. 

The accessory charge can apply to any crime, with homicide being the most severe, Nudson said, "so we request a full 365 days."  

Bixby however, urged the judge to follow probation's recommendation of 364 days, because the one full day made a colossal difference in the outcome of Perez's pending federal proceedings over her lack of citizenship. The result could be her children permanently losing both parents -- one to prison and one to deportation, he said.

Nudson contended that an immigration detainer lodged against Perez by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) shouldn't be a significant factor in her sentence, be it 364 or 365 days, to which Lavayen agreed.

"It's very clear to me this community lost a wonderful son, husband and father — I understand [Perez] has kids of her own which makes it even more befuddling as to why she did what she did," Lavayen said after hearing both sides.

However, Lavayen noted that Perez knew what was going on that night, and despite probation's recommendation and Perez's lack of criminal history, he couldn't "be nuanced in [her] sentence." 

"This was a close call whether it was state prison or probation; I'm not inclined to go further to protect someone's actions that were to me, very serious and deliberate," he said.

Lavayen sentenced Perez to 365 days in County Jail with credit for time served, and reminded Bixby that what ICE might do is out of the local court's control. 

Highley, Perez's husband, pleaded not guilty to the murder charge and firearm enhancements on June 7 and will continue with his proceedings Aug. 23. 

Gina Kim covers crime and courts for Santa Maria Times. Follow her on Twitter @gina_k210

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Courts/Public Safety Reporter