A Loudoun County murder trial that was expected to last for three weeks ended quickly when the suspect pleaded guilty to eight felony charges during the first day of testimony.
Gavin Collins, 23, was charged with first-degree murder, robbery, and firearm violations in connection with the July 8, 2020, fatal shooting of Jose I. Escobar Menendez, and additional drug and firearms charges stemming from his arrest two days later.
He entered the guilty pleas during the first day of testimony in the trial, after prosecutors had called just nine witnesses to the stand.
The murder charge carries a sentence of life in prison.
During opening statements Tuesday, Senior Commonwealth’s Attorney Matthew Sweet described Menendez as “a beautiful man with a heart of gold” and “a loving trusting soul” who was “naive of the real dangers that exist in our world.”
Laying out the evidence prosecutors said they would present over the next several days, Sweet said for Menendez, the incident started at 12:30 a.m. when he received a text message from Collins to meet up and have sex. Menendez packed an overnight bag and drove from his mother’s home in Winchester to Sterling for the meetup. He arrived at the Village at Potomac Falls apartment complex shortly before 2 a.m.
Collins and Hunter drove there to meet him. Neighbors heard a gunshot and Hunter’s Dodge charger and Menendez’s Sentra drove away. An hour later a neighbor found Menendez laying on the street.
Sweet said that with the help of Menendez’s best friend with whom he shared his GPS location, the victim’s phone was found discarded along Rt. 28. Investigators determined Collins was the last person to have contact with Menendez.
Collins was located in a Sterling hotel room with his girlfriend, quantities of methamphetamines, psychedelic mushrooms and marijuana. A .45-caliber pistol was in the nightstand. Ballistics experts linked the weapon to the single brass casing found by Menendez’s body and to the bullet that lodged in his mouth, Sweet said.
“The murder weapon was found in the defendant’s hotel room,” Sweet said.
Upon questioning by investigators, Collins and Hunter said they were on a five-day methamphetamine bender and looking for ways to get money. Stealing a car and selling it to a contact in Prince William County was the plan they devised. They got $500 for Menendez’s car, Sweet said.
Both men had denied pulling the trigger and taking Menendez’s life.
In her opening statement, Collins’ attorney Corinne Magee said the fatal shooting occurred when “everything went sideways.”
She said the defense did not plan to contest much of the evidence—acknowledging Collins’s involvement in the events—however, for the jury to find Collins guilty of any of the eight charges against him would require “competent evidence.” She said she would challenge hearsay evidence that could not be proved without first-hand accounts and would ask jurors to question the motivation and credibility of some prosecution witnesses who have avoided facing criminal charges for their own involvement.
After testimony of the early witnesses—including Menendez’s father, his best friend, and neighbors who heard the gunshot—Collins told his attorney he wanted to plead guilty.
A sentencing hearing is scheduled for Dec. 1.