Placing blame on New Mexico’s inferior mental healthcare system, defense attorney Gary Mitchell portrayed Reno as a “borderline retarded” mama’s boy who believed he was acting in self-defense when he pepper sprayed his pregnant girlfriend and her father, then shot them both dead on May 22, 2009.
Hill told jurors that Reno’s nicknames included “RKL” and “The Don”; that Sarah Lovato was only 14 years old when she Reno sought her ought for a relationship; and that Reno’s possessiveness was so extreme that he demanded that Sarah leave her phone on at night next to her bed so that he could hear her breathing.
Reno, according to Hill, didn’t want Sarah to use birth control, but blamed her for getting pregnant. Hill said Reno hit and allegedly kicked Sarah in the stomach, and that she succeeded in hiding her bruises from family members. When Sarah finally worked up the courage to leave him, Hill said, an enraged Reno murdered her and her father, Bennie Ray Lovato, Sr.
After the murder, Hill said, Reno fled in his black Mercury Mountaineer, removed its USA Security magnets and his bloodied work jacket, and eventually turned himself in to the Los Alamos Police Department wearing a fresh set of clothes, and slippers. The details provided by prosecutors suggest an aborted escape plan, which would support their charges of premeditated murder.
Mitchell told jurors that Reno suffered from anxiety and depression, and that teachers at his private Christian school knew he was mentally impaired. Mitchell said Reno “couldn’t cope” with the environment at Santa Fe High, and dropped out. Reno worked for his “domineering” father’s security company because Leyba Sr believed “that’s what a man should be doing“; Reno, however, would’ve rather worked in landscaping, or designing flowers, as he had always enjoyed doing with his mother and grandmother.
Both sides of the Leyba family “don’t like to talk about” their extensive history of mental illness, Mitchell said. One of Reno’s uncles spent “virtually a lifetime” in mental institutions—not to mention his younger sister, who continues to bounce from one mental hospital to another. Mitchell said Reno had seen “close to 60, 70 [incidents] of domestic violence-type violence where other people had to get involved…
“So when he thinks of a father figure, he thinks of someone who abuses you. That’s what he did” to Sarah, Mitchell said.
On the day of the killings, Mitchell said, Reno wasn’t wearing the glasses he needed to see properly, and was further blinded by the pepper spray he fired at Bennie Lovato, Sr, whose approach he found threatening. When he shot Bennie and Sarah, he feared for his life. (As evidence that Reno does not perceive situations like a normal person, Mitchell mentioned a previous incident in which Reno “feared for his life” when Sarah, who was only “playing,” brandished a knife at him.)
When Reno called his brother and father about the killings, Mitchell said, his tone was “suicidal in nature.”
• Hill told the jury it was Jared Lovato, not Bennie Jr, who rushed upstairs after the shooting with a baseball bat.
• Mitchell told SFR that prosecutors did not offer a serious plea deal: “The plea was life” in prison, Mitchell said.
Lovato Family Testimony
Sarah’s older brother Jared Lovato and younger sister Julie both testified today.
Jared, 25 years old and the middle of three brothers, described how his sister seemed depressed and sad after she began dating Reno. He also gave his account of the night of May 22, when he rushed into his father’s apartment, aluminum T-ball bat in hand, to find his father and his sister laying dead on the floor.
Julie, 17 and soft-spoken, cried through parts of her testimony. Prosecutors asked her to read aloud a love letter to Reno from Sarah. Julie also read from Sarah’s diary entries, which described her regret and confusion following a beating at Reno’s hands, which left her face bruised.
“I didn’t think he would ever do that,” Sarah wrote, “but I guess I was wrong.”
Julie gave her impressions of Reno. “At the beginning, he was nice, a nice person, a person you would want to know,” Julie said. “Toward the end, he started acting different: Like, mean.”
Supporting the prosecution’s portrait of a controlling, jealous boyfriend, Julie said Reno called Sarah “every day; like every hour,” including almost immediately before the shooting.
Two neighbors and Santa Fe Police Officer Jeramie Bisagna also testified.
As Bisagna described the murder scene, the prosecution projected photographs of Sarah and her father’s dead bodies.
Reno kept his eyes down at the table.