The family of Ariel Fernandez found some justice on Thursday, March 29 after an Atascosa County jury convicted Ariel’s then boyfriend, Joe Anthony Perez, in the December 2015 fatal stabbing, as well as the stabbing of Ariel’s brother, Richard Luebano.
The Honorable Judge Phillip Kazan then sentenced Perez to 35 years in prison for Ariel’s death, and 10 years for the stabbing of Luebano.
“Thank you to Texas Ranger Terry Synder, Poteet Police Department Lt. Frank Leal, prosecutors April Ayers-Perez and Brad Thornton for their dedication to ensuring justice for Ariel. We are grateful for the service of the jury,” said 81st Judicial District Attorney Audrey Louis.
The daughter of Juan Fernandez and Cynthia Luebano, Ariel died on December 13, 2015. She had just celebrated her 24th birthday on December 8.
Poteet police arrested Joe Anthony Perez on December 13, 2015, after a double-stabbing at a house on Avenue H. In court it was stated that an argument over a $10 bet escalated between Luebano and Perez on that night. Perez was accused of pulling out a knife and stabbing both Luebano and Ariel. Ariel, who attempted to stop the fight, was taken to the hospital where she was pronounced dead.
That following December 16, 2015, family and friends remembered Ariel at a Candlelight Vigil at the Atascosa River Park in Pleasanton. They united over the loss of a beautiful life cut short. The 2010 Poteet High School graduate loved fashion, playing volleyball and being there for others.
On Thursday afternoon, 24-year-old Aryka Rizan was called to the stand. She was in a relationship with Perez while in high school and then again after she graduated. Rizan described how the relationship was good at first and there was nothing out of the ordinary. They broke up when Perez said he did not want a relationship.
They became a couple again in 2012 and after that is when Rizan said the relationship turned ugly. She described a particular altercation when she said an upset Perez forced her against the wall. She said she did not feel pain, but it was abrupt.
Rizan shared her accounts of her relationship with Perez, such as when he would spit on her, punched her mirrors and tortured her two cats. She detailed an instance when she said Perez grabbed her into a recliner which resulted in a trip to the hospital and stitches.
After her testimony, Perez’s team asked Rizan if she had ever filed a report and she answered she had not. She was also asked if she had any hospital records. Rizan answered no, but said she could provide them.
Perez’s team argued that we either punish for what was lost, or we punish for the action. If we punish for the loss, then every punishment would be the same, so we don’t do that, said Perez’s team. They also stated that Rizan never produced documents, they are unreported offenses and that what Rizan said is unsubstantiated. Perez’s team said Joe was assaulted first and he reacted. Joe acted recklessly and recklessness does not deserve 20 years, said his team. His record shows possession of marijuana, but no violent crimes, his team said. Perez has sat in jail and pondered what he should have done differently, said his team. They described him as a good kid who made one bad mistake. He was reckless and did not mean for it to happen, they said. His team asked that Perez receive five years.
The state then argued that Joe did not take responsibility for that day in 2015. Joe did mean it- he brought the weapon, said the state. Regarding Rizan not coming forward, that is what often happens in abuse cases, argued the state. The state asked that Joe remain behind bars for a lengthy time.
Victim impact statement
Following a short recess and the announcement of sentencing, Ariel’s mother, Cynthia Luebano closed with her victim impact statement. Donning a tightly-pulled back ponytail, purple blouse and purple ribbon, Luebano said she did not know where to begin. She said she will never truly understand such devastation.
“Never would I imagine going through something like this. We all suffer losses, but when it is your own child, it’s a pain that’s indescribable,” said Luebano. “Imagine your worst emotional pain and multiply that by 1,000. My grieving will be for the rest of my life.”
Luebano said there is no closure, no moving on. She disagrees that time heals all wounds. Ariel was born premature and struggled then. Leaving this world she also struggled, explained her mother. Her mother painted a picture of a young woman who never found fault with others and was so full of life. Ariel’s friends always came to her for advice.
Luebano said Ariel hesitated when it came to the family meeting Joe.
“Now I know why,” Luebano said.
She asked, “That night, where was your compassion? You had a choice- you made a choice.”
Luebano regretted not being able to hold Ariel during those final moments.
“But I was glad I got to tell her I loved her and she wasn’t alone,” Luebano said.
She loved cooking, often googling the ingredients on hand and coming up with something. The weeks after her passing, Ariel continued to give her mother signs.
Approximately one year after her death, Luebano dreamt Ariel.
“She looked me straight in the eyes. She said, ‘I’m okay. You’ll be okay and I love you.’ That’s what has carried me. This isn’t home. Vengeance belongs to God. God gives me strength.”
Luebano told Perez that despite his senseless act, she does not hate him. She hates what he did to Ariel.
“Everyday I grieve. I will continue a life sentence. I forgive you for my peace. I am a Christian- the Bible says I have to love all regardless of what is done. I hope you never lose your faith in God,” Luebano said.
She pointed out how a child without parents is an orphan. A widow is someone who loses their spouse. However, there is no word in the English language for a parent who loses their child.
On behalf of the Luebano and Fernandez families, she was thankful for the opportunity to share her story.