As the guilty verdict was announced in court late Monday afternoon, Monica Loera’s sisters embraced and broke into tears.
After four hours of deliberation, Travis County jurors convicted JonCasey Rowell of murder in the January 2016 death of Loera at her North Austin home.
That jury will return Tuesday for the punishment phase for Rowell, 30, a Childress man who was working temporarily in Central Texas last year when he killed the transgender woman after arranging online to pay her for sex. Loera, 43, who made the transition to a woman in her 20s, was well-known in the local LGBT community.
Rowell had claimed he fired his gun in self-defense. The first-degree felony carries a possible term of five to 99 years.
The shooting happened about 2:30 a.m. that January night after Rowell went to Loera’s door a third time. Testimony at trial indicated Rowell had left the house intending to get condoms, then noticed that he had left his vest, phone and keys inside the home on East Powell Lane. On Rowell’s first return to the door, Loera gave him those items.
Agitated, Rowell came back to the door because he thought Loera had kept his wallet. The wallet later turned out to be in a vest pocket. Left behind, for reasons that never became clear, was Rowell’s Austin Community College ID card.
What happened on that last visit to the door remained in dispute, other than Rowell admitting that he had shot Loera in the neck after she opened the door. Rowell fled, returned to his wife and their 10-day-old child in Childress, and then came back to Central Texas three days later because he was working in Georgetown. He was arrested less than a week after Loera’s death.
Rowell’s defense centered on the argument that he felt threatened when Loera opened the door. He claimed that Loera shouted through that door that she had a baseball bat, something witnesses said did not occur. His lawyer, Jeff Senter, said Monday that the door “exploded” open and that Loera lunged at Rowell. The shot traveled less than a foot before hitting Loera, prosecutors said.
“What is he to do?” Senter said in his closing argument. “He’s been told he’s going to be hit with a baseball bat.”
But prosecutors, in their closing arguments Monday, noted that Rowell grabbed the gun before that last visit to the door, fully cocked it and took off the safety. Witnesses, including three people in Loera’s home and two neighbors, contradicted several elements of Rowell’s story during the five-day trial, prosecutors said. Police did not find a baseball bat on the premises, Travis County Assistant District Attorney Mark Pryor said.
“Turns out this is really not much of a whodunit,” Pryor told the jury. Rowell “intentionally, knowingly caused the death of Monica. He meant to pull the trigger.”
Rowell’s self-defense argument depended in part on the idea that he believed he had been robbed. But prosecutor Beth Payan said the facts and “common sense” made his story “preposterous.”
His real intent, she said, was to hide from his family and church community the “dirty little secret” that he was paying $100 to $400 for sex while working away from home. By the next day, Payan said a review of his cellphone showed, Rowell was searching online to find out how many people get away with murder each year in the United States. By three days later, as he returned to the Austin area, Rowell was online looking for prostitutes in Abilene, Waco and Austin, Payan said.
“He screwed up, and he thought his whole world would come tumbling down,” she said.