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Dry eyes were scarce Friday morning as friends and family of Anthony "Tony" San Juan packed the benches in a courtroom at Santa Maria Superior Court for his killer's sentencing, and to say their goodbyes.

San Juan, 43, died March 4, 2017 after being shot outside an Orcutt bar by Jonathan Highley, who was found guilty of first-degree murder in November for fatally shooting San Juan in the head as he crawled to escape Highley, who was walking out of his 114 Park Avenue apartment with a gun. 

On Friday, Judge Gustavo Lavayen sentenced Highley to 54 years to life in prison. That means Highley will be in his 80s before he is eligible for parole. 

San Juan's wife, Sara, and his mother, Cheryl San Juan, who attended every court hearing over the last 22 months, spoke to the court about San Juan, a beloved son and father of two.

"On Saturday, March 4, 2017, our lives were forever changed," Sara said, starting her statement. "We were devastated to hear that our beautiful, amazing Tony's life had been taken from him. Our hearts will never be the same. Nothing will bring Tony back to us, but Tony no longer has the opportunity to stand for himself, so today I'll speak on his behalf. 

"Instead of sharing a hug or kiss with Tony, I was only able to hold his cold hand during my last moments with him," she continued. "Instead of walking hand in hand with him together, I had to carry his ashes from the funeral home, and explain to my children that was what was left of their dad.

"Instead of waking up next to him each morning, I had to roll over after a nightmare to find a space where he once slept." 

Sara didn't mince words, calling Highley a coward, "nothing but a weak, scared, angry and evil person."

"I don't know what went wrong in his life, or who hurt him to make him want to hurt others but I know this, Tony would have turned around and faced him like a man had he made it a fair fight. He would not have turned his back to run away, then hid from his actions like a child," she said.

Sara pledged that she and her family would continue to evolve, find happiness, move on. That she would raise her children, give her daughter away at her wedding someday and watch her son graduate from college. 

"Jonathan Highley doesn't define me, this courtroom doesn't define me and my late husband's death will not define me," Sara concluded. "I have no anger towards you, I actually feel sorry for you -- I am happy to rid you from my mind, my life and to never have to see your face nor hear your name again."

San Juan's mother Cheryl spoke about the horror of having to get a phone call from her young grandson the morning after San Juan was found dead by police, while Cheryl was in Fresno with her husband. 

"[His] phone call to me, crying and saying, 'Nana, something is wrong. Two men are here talking to Mom about something, and she's crying," said Cheryl. "'Nana, they're wearing suits and ties, but I don't know what to do.'" 

"That weekend when we got the call our son was dead, to place into words how I felt that moment is impossible; and while I was screaming and crying in my car, back in Santa Maria, [Highley] was packing up evidence and planning his escape," she continued. "We've watched him, listened to the excruciating details, saw evidence of how he took our son's life.

"The only thing we have in common regarding our son's death is that we both think about it daily," continued Cheryl. "I've been robbed -- as [Tony] will never walk through my door again with his beautiful smile. He was a great dad to two of my grandchildren, and they'll never see him again. He's missing their lives because of what [Highley] did that night." 

Cheryl recalled one of her grandson's basketball games during which she saw a man that resembled her son across the court.

"He dressed just like Tony, he looked just like Tony," said Cheryl, crying. "I cried during the whole game." 

Despite the sadness, Cheryl extended her forgiveness to Highley, and said that her faith in God was what helped the family move on, and that she hoped Highley will find help. 

"[God] is the only reason we've been able to make it this far," said Cheryl. "Life will go on. God calls us to forgive no matter the circumstances, as He forgave us and died for us on the cross.

So as my husband, [Tony's father] and I stand here today, we do forgive you, as we don't want to live with hatred and anger in our hearts."

After the statements a video of San Juan's life was shown to the courtroom from his varsity football and baseball days at St. Joseph High School to prom pictures, and trips with friends. Also included were photos of his wedding day, photos with his parents, and the births of his two children, Noah and Shiloh.

While his family and friends sobbed, many also laughed when photos of San Juan's humor were displayed.

Highley stood trial for four weeks starting Oct. 23 as prosecutor Anne Nudson and defense attorney Mark Owens battled over whether or not the killing was premeditated, willful and deliberate. Owens argued that Highley was drunk, suffered a blow to the head which clouded his judgment and had no memory of what occurred. Nudson argued that Highley was the aggressor that night, chose to go back into his apartment, find his hidden gun then walk back outside to shoot someone.

After about a day of deliberations, the jury convicted Highley Nov. 16 on all counts including first-degree murder, and two gun enhancements. 

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


Courts/Public Safety Reporter