Leandro Maza would have already been home in Argentina the night he was killed if his flight hadn’t been canceled because of the coronavirus.
Instead he was on the front lawn of a home in Central Long Beach, in the middle of a fight between a family who was renting him a room and their daughter’s boyfriend, Edson Rufino, who was holding a kitchen knife.
Maza, newly engaged and in the U.S. for a months-long vacation with his dad, appeared to have been pushed to the ground by the boyfriend. But when Maza got up, a blossom of blood started to form on his shirt, witnesses said.
The 31-year-old fell to the ground again. He had been stabbed in the heart.
Rufino has since been charged with murder, among other crimes, in connection with Maza’s death on April 2. He pleaded not guilty at a hearing on April 21, and in early July, a judge ordered Rufino to stand trial.
His public defender, Kevin McGurk, declined to comment beyond saying that Rufino was acting in self-defense.
In the meantime, Maza’s family has been left in limbo, first by the coronavirus, which kept them in the United States beyond their intended stay, and now by the outcome of a murder trial that may take years to resolve.
“We wanted to go, but not go,” Maza’s father, Hector, said in Spanish of returning to their home in Mar del Plata, Argentina. “If we left, nothing would get resolved and I want justice for my son.”
The ‘happiest days’
Maza, known as Leo to his friends and family, had come here in November with his father to explore the United States, with Long Beach as their home base.
Maza’s girlfriend, Daniela Gonzalez, joined them in mid-February, when she and Maza rented a room together in a house in Central Long Beach. On March 8, the couple drove to Las Vegas, where Maza proposed in front of the fountain of the Venitian Hotel.
A few days later, the state issued sweeping stay-at-home orders. Businesses shut down. The family’s March 23 flight back home was canceled.
Hector Maza and Gonzalez would be stranded here until early May as they waited for flights to open so that Maza’s body could be flown home and buried in his home country. Out of money, they relied on the help of acquaintances they had met in their travels and assistance from the Argentinian consulate.
“Never in my life would have I imagined that he would die,” Gonzalez said in Spanish. “I always thought—because if you saw him, you’d see he was a giant, a strong man, a bear—it was impossible to think that he would have been killed by someone like that.”
Maza, a mechanic by trade, wanted to open his own auto shop. His dad called him “a wholesome type” who got a good education and never got involved with bad crowds.
Maza and his father arrived in the U.S. in November. Maza’s father, a nurse for a rehabilitation clinic, lamented that he didn’t have enough time to spend with his son, and saw the trip as a way to connect. They each saved up for a year to take leave from work and make the trip.
“We were living the happiest days of our lives together because I began to know him, to know him at the age of 31,” Hector said.
‘God, what’s happening’
When Maza’s girlfriend arrived—she only received one month off from her job in prison security—she and Maza rented a room together from a woman named Vilma Figueroa near Long Beach Boulevard and 21st Street.
On the night of his death, Maza was trying to help; his father said it’s what he always did. He helped strangers on the side of the road and often fixed friends’ cars at no cost.
The District Attorney’s office, in a press statement in April, described Maza as a “good Samaritan” who attempted to intervene.
Figueroa said through a translator at a July court hearing that she arrived home from work on April 2 to find her daughter Nicole Rivera, 19, and her boyfriend, Rufino, 19, whom she had a restraining order against.
Figueroa said Rufino laughed when she said she was calling the police.
Gonzalez, meanwhile, said she was cooking dinner. At some point Figueroa’s adult son, Dennis Herrera, reportedly also came home from work and began arguing with Rufino, telling him to get out of the house, but also trying to make sure he wouldn’t leave with his sister before police got there.
Gonzalez said Rufino grabbed the knife she was using to cook and started threatening the group.
Figueroa testified that Rufino pushed her into the bushes as he ran outside with the knife. Herrera and Maza followed him as Herrera continued to argue with Rufino.
Maza tried appealing to the teenage daughter, telling her she needed to respect her mother after she’d been working all day. The daughter, Rivera, yelled at him to mind his business as her boyfriend threatened her brother and Maza with the knife.
Her mother shouted, “God, what’s happening?” She again called 911 and told them Rufino had a knife.
Herrera testified that Rufino ran away with his sister down an alley, still holding the knife. Herrera and Maza followed, and along the way, Maza picked up a short metal pipe in an alley.
Blocks away, Rufino ran inside a random house near Linden Avenue and 20th Street with the knife.
The family inside scattered to different rooms barricading themselves. Herrera said he tried to keep Rufino in place by holding the front door until police could arrive. Rufino shouted, “I’m going to jail,” holding his head in his hands, Herrera said.
Afraid that Rufino would try to find another room to escape through—possibly hurting the family inside—Herrera said he let go of the door.
Herrera, Rivera and Rufino converged on the front lawn when Maza caught up.
“Everyone’s screaming,” Herrera recalled.
Herrera said he thought Rufino pushed Maza to the ground, so he grabbed the pipe Maza had dropped and hit Rufino over the head with it. Maza got up briefly and called out, “Dennis” before fainting.
Herrera testified that Maza never used the metal pipe on anyone, although a detective would later say at the July court hearing that Rivera told him that night the welt on her head was from that pipe.
After Maza collapsed, Rufino and Rivera fled. Police later found them in a Jeep Cherokee with Rufino hiding under a blanket in the backseat, according to authorities.
‘He’s gone now’
It would be hours before Gonzalez knew her fiance was dead.
She watched as officers put up police tape around Figueroa’s home. When she asked what happened, an officer told her it was just so onlookers don’t get too close.
“I said, ‘Excuse me, but in Argentina when there is police tape it’s because someone died,’” she recalled.
She had to relay the news to Maza’s father.
“I was getting to know him,” Hector Maza said. “I was recovering the lost time and, well, he’s gone now.
“On top of that, his mother told me, ‘Take care of each other, take care of my son, don’t let anything happen to him,’ and I bring him back in a box. I feel guilty because I promised her, ‘I promise you I will return him, stop nagging, don’t nag, Leo will be with me.’”
It would also be days before they could see him due to restrictions imposed during the coronavirus pandemic.
It wasn’t until a week later at a local funeral home that they were able to see him, embalmed and prepared to be sent back to Argentina. They brought clothes for him to be dressed in and said goodbye for the last time.
When news of his death circulated, a family whom Maza had befriended from a car club reached out to Hector and Gonzalez and offered to let them stay in their home in Moreno Valley for as long as they needed. The Argentinian consulate arranged food assistance.
Further complicated by the pandemic, Hector Maza and Gonzalez had to figure out how to get Maza’s body home. They initially set up a GoFundMe to raise money, but were able to work with the consulate to get him home on May 1.
After that, they waited for a call from the consulate telling them that they would be on one of the few monthly flights to Argentina. After several weeks, they got a call and arrived home a few days after Maza’s body.
Maza was buried in a Mar del Plata cemetery on May 18, after Hector Maza and Gonzalez finished a two-week quarantine. Friends and extended family held a vigil outside the cemetery gates as only 10 family members were allowed to go into the cemetery for the burial.
Gonzalez is still waiting for her phone to be mailed back from police when the investigation is over. She wants her photos and videos of Maza.
“I don’t want to lose them. It’s the only thing, the memories, I have,” she said. “More than anything I want our WhatsApp messages with each other, his voice. I don’t know, it’s something that I need to continue listening to so I don’t forget him.”
Now home, the family worries about what will happen in the murder case—they want justice.
Despite the public defender’s argument that Maza’s death was in self-defense, a Long Beach judge in July found there was enough evidence to hold him for trial.
If convicted as charged in the case of Leo Maza, Rufino faces a possible maximum sentence of life in prison.
“We want justice for my son, and if we have to fight for it, we will fight but my son’s life will not end here,” Hector said.