Defendants in Jonathan Krueger case sentenced after seven years

Mary Krueger, Jonathan’s mother, gives a testimony sharing stories about her son during sentencing in the case of the 2015 death of Jonathan Krueger on Thursday, April 28, 2022, at the Circuit Courthouse in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Jack Weaver | Staff

Sarah Michels

Seven years after the murder of UK student and Kernel photographer Jonathan Krueger, Fayette County Judge Jeffrey Taylor has sentenced the three defendants to a collective 89 years in prison, in line with the Commonwealth’s recommendations. 

Efrain Diaz Jr., Justin Smith and Roman Gonzalez Jr. were given consecutive sentences, meaning that they will serve their sentences one after the other, not concurrently. Diaz Jr. faces a total of 20 years for first and second degree robbery, Smith faces a total of 34 years for manslaughter, first and second degree robbery and fleeing and evading police. Gonzalez Jr. faces a total of 35 years for murder and first and second degree robbery. 

Just five days after his 22nd birthday, Krueger was killed in a robbery gone wrong while walking home on East Maxwell Street with his friend, Aaron Gillette, around 2 a.m. Last month, while entering their guilty pleas, Diaz Jr., Smith and Gonzalez Jr. explained that they pulled up to Krueger and Gillette in a red van, intending to rob them, and when a fight ensued, Krueger was shot and killed. Both Gonzalez Jr. and Diaz Jr. said they were intoxicated at the time.

Gillette spoke at the sentencing hearing and recounted his easy friendship with Krueger, made over their shared fraternity and love of basketball. He said that Krueger became one of his closest friends by senior year, and that he was always impressed by his confidence. 

Now, Gillette says he struggles from PTSD and survivor’s guilt. He thinks of Krueger each time he hits a new milestone, wondering about the man he would have become and the lives he would have touched. He asked the judge for consecutive sentences for the defendants. 

“It will not bring Jon back, but I believe it will bring him more justice,” Gillette said. 

Prior to the sentencing hearing, Judge Taylor said he had closely examined statements submitted by the family, friends and teachers of the defendants. Each of the defendants and their counsel also had a chance to make statements to the courtroom Wednesday morning. After Diaz Jr.’s counsel explained his troubled adolescence, heavily influenced by his father’s substance abuse and domestic violence beginning when Diaz Jr. was 14, Diaz Jr. apologized to the Krueger family.

“I know that if my mother was going through the same thing, she would be devastated,” he said.

Smith also made a public apology to the family. His counsel asked for a concurrent sentencing and that the judge consider Smith’s youth and background. Gonzalez Jr. did not speak, but his counsel said that he had been trying his best to take accountability for his actions. He added that Gonzalez Jr. had written letters of apology in both juvenile detention and the adult jail, but that his lawyers had prevented these from being sent until the case was resolved.

“Losing your children is a pain or loss you’re never going to be able to replace,” he said. “You could put [Gonzalez] to death today, it would never erase that pain.” 

After the defendants took the stand, Krueger’s family members got their turn to speak about him. Krueger’s sister, Liz Krueger Roberts, talked about how her brother would have coveted time with his many nephews that he never got to meet. 

“It’s incredibly painful to know that my children will never know his love, his energy, his passion for life,” Roberts said. “They will never get a trip to the zoo or silly selfies, and they will only know him through our pictures or memories and stories.”

Krueger’s mother, Mary Krueger, illustrated what her family has lost through several glimpses into her son’s life. She recounted his final birthday celebration with the family, his penchant for storytelling, the way his Christmas spirit carried everyone in the family along, his passion for photography that began when he received his first camera on his fifth birthday and his quickly developing plans and dreams for his future. 

“He had the biggest, most generous heart to match his smile. It isn’t possible for me to wrap my head around the idea that someone could crush his heart,” she said. “However, Mr. Diaz and Mr. Smith and Mr. Gonzalez did just that in the early morning hours of April 17. What they failed to crush was his spirit.” 

Mary Krueger said that after the defendants pleaded guilty, she felt empty. She felt that they had not shown any remorse or acceptance of responsibility for their actions. When Diaz Jr. and Smith filed motions to reduce their bail shortly after their guilty pleas to spend time with family before their sentencing, she said she found their requests “offensive” and “outrageous.” 

“Jonathan certainly did not get a chance to ask for a reduction in the death sentence Mr. Diaz and Mr. Smith gave him on April 17,” she said. “I cannot fathom why Mr. Smith and Mr. Diaz felt they deserved a break from their time in jail.” 

Seven years later, Mary Krueger says the pain is just as gut-wrenching as it was when she was first given the news by the police officers at her door. Roberts said that she rarely goes a day without seeing or hearing something that reminds her of her brother. 

“He always talked about the future. He was always looking ahead to the next adventure,” Roberts said. “And I think that’s what makes it hard to believe he’s gone. He was so alive.”