Defendants plead guilty in case of murdered Kernel photo editor


Jonathan Krueger poses for a photo at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Jonathan Palmer.

Sarah Michels

Three defendants have pleaded guilty to charges in the 2015 murder and robbery case of former UK student and Kentucky Kernel photo editor Jonathan Krueger

On Thursday morning, Efrain Diaz Jr., Justin Smith and Roman Gonzalez Jr. appeared before Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey Taylor alongside their attorneys to enter their pleas. The defendants’ guilty pleas end seven years of postponements and trial delays

Smith, 25, pleaded guilty to one count of manslaughter in the second degree, one count of robbery in the second degree, one count of robbery in the first degree and one count of fleeing and evading the police. The commonwealth recommended sentences of five to 10 years for the manslaughter and second degree robbery charges, 10 to 20 years for the first degree robbery charge and at least one year for the fleeing and evading charge. 

Diaz, 27, pleaded guilty to robbery in the first degree and second degree. His original murder charge was dismissed by the commonwealth, which recommended sentences of 15 and five years, respectively, for these charges. 

Gonzalez, 24, pleaded guilty to murder, in addition to robbery in the first and second degree. The commonwealth recommended a sentence of 20 years for the murder charge, and 10 and five years for the robbery charges. 

Upon completion of a pre-sentence investigation (PSI) to compile thorough background information on the defendants, the sentencing hearing for all three defendants will be held April 28 at 9 a.m. 

The defendants originally entered not guilty pleas after the murder of Krueger on April 17, 2015. Krueger, 22, had been walking home with a friend, Aaron Gillette, around 2 a.m. on the 400 block of East Maxwell when a red van drove up to them. According to their statements in court, Smith and Gonzalez hopped out of the van, intending to rob Krueger and Gillette. Diaz had been driving the van. After Gonzalez stole Gillette’s wallet, Krueger got into an argument with him. Shots were fired, and upon arrival at the hospital, Krueger was pronounced dead at 2:35 a.m.

When the police tried to apprehend the van, Smith fled the scene. He and Diaz admitted to having weapons on them at the time of the murder. 

Judge Taylor found that the defendants all knowingly and voluntarily entered guilty pleas.

Mary Krueger, Jonathan Krueger’s mother, said that hearing the guilty pleas was “surreal,” since it marked a sudden end to an otherwise dragging court process. She said that Monday morning, she had been in full trial mindset, starting the process of jury selection. But by Wednesday, the prosecution was being asked to consider a plea offer that they had introduced over a year earlier.

“I think there’s probably something to be said about having them plead guilty now rather than going through trial, and all that that all that happens at trial. And so it doesn’t feel good. It doesn’t feel bad. It just is what it is,” Krueger said. “After everything and all the emotions we’ve been through, [the plea hearing was] very cut and dry. Not a lot was said. A lot of ‘yeses’ to questions, but you kind of come away a little bit empty.”

At the upcoming sentencing hearing, Krueger and other family members and friends will get their first chance to talk about Jonathan Krueger and the life he led. He always lived life in the moment, to the fullest, Krueger said, and she hopes to convey how much more he could have accomplished if his life weren’t ended so abruptly.

The sentencing judge will determine if the defendants sentences will run concurrently, at the same time, or consecutively, building on top of each other. Krueger said that her and her family are advocating for consecutive sentencing. But either way, it doesn’t give anyone full closure.

“No matter how many years it is, it never really rights the wrong,” Krueger said “And as my brother said to me today, ‘What you want is Jonathan back — his life back so he could go live it and we could celebrate and then be part of it. That’s not going to happen.’ So we just carry forth his energy and try to make the best of our lives to reflect what he was trying to share with us about his life.”