After weeks of a court trial, a 68-year-old man has been convicted of second-degree murder for fatally shooting a Stockton fire captain last year.
On Jan. 31, 2022, Stockton Fire Capt. Vidal “Max” Fortuna was shot and killed by Robert Somerville while responding to a Dumpster fire in the back of a warehouse at 142 S. Aurora St. in Stockton. A San Joaquin County Superior Court jury found Somerville guilty Tuesday of the murder charge and connected gun allegations.
However, some fire officials like Stockton Firefighters Local 456 union president Mario Gardea still feel that they will never find closure in the death of their colleague.
“Today, I heard “closure” a lot … we’ll never have closure,” Gardea said. “This community and our fire department lost a great man … So, closure, I’ve heard it a few times, but I don’t think that’ll ever happen for this local.”
In the quiet Stockton courtroom, Fortuna’s mother and sister were seen holding hands while they awaited the verdict from the jury.
“I feel like the Fortuna family is strong … they haven’t shown their emotions yet,” Gardea said. “Becky (Fortuna’s wife) and the family and Max’s mom have been really strong in this whole court proceeding, but just like us we’re dealing with this on a day-to-day basis.”
“This community and our fire department lost a great man … So, closure, I’ve heard it a few times, but I don’t think that’ll ever happen for this local.”Mario Gardea, Stockton Firefighters Local 456 president
Somerville shot several times at a dock door where Fortuna and another fire crew member were attempting to saw the door open.
According to City Manager Harry Black, when crews saw the flames beginning to impinge on a nearby business, they attempted to enter the building to extinguish the fire but soon afterward heard gunshots.
During Somerville’s arrest, he said that he had shot his firearm because he believed someone was trying to break into his warehouse and wanted to scare possible trespassers away.
“Move away from the building, I have a firearm,” Somerville told investigators he yelled before firing shots.
In closing arguments, lead defense attorney Russell Humphrey told the jury that there was a lot of blame to be distributed that resulted in Fortuna’s death.
He blamed the city and said firefighters were let down because they are expected to work in such unsafe environments.
If more firefighters had been dispatched to the scene, it would have allowed more resources besides the three responding firefighters alone in the dark at an approximately 14,000-square-foot warehouse, Humphrey said.
However, Gardea said they get calls every day and there’s nothing they could have done differently.
“Max was attacked by a person … that person took his life and there’s no lessons learned,” said Gardea.
Somerville’s son Tre, who has attended every hearing, remained in his seat with a blank stare after his father was found guilty.
“Stockton Fire Department Captain Fortuna’s death was an unfathomable tragedy. He was murdered because the defendant made the choice to shoot without cause, legal justification, or concern for human life,” said San Joaquin County District Attorney Ron Freitas in a news release after the verdict.
Somerville is set to appear for sentencing on April 10.
Victoria Franco is a reporter based in Stockton covering San Joaquin County for Bay City News Foundation and its nonprofit news site Local News Matters. She is a Report for America corps member.