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Crime News The Real Murders Of Atlanta

‘Love Is a Strong Reason for Homicides’: Atlanta Woman Masterminds Boyfriend's Murder

Atlanta detectives must determine if a fashion entrepreneur and father was killed over business – or something personal.

By Joe Dziemianowicz

Shortly after midnight on July 22, 2019, gunshots rang out in the quiet Atlanta suburb of Mableton, Georgia.

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The victim was 24-year-old George Vela, a young father in the fashion reselling business. His mother, Leigh Ann Smith, who was his neighbor, quickly called 911.

But it was too late. “I went to where George was, and he was already deceased,” Smith told “The Real Murders of Atlanta,” airing Fridays at 9/8c on Oxygen. “I closed his eyes. That was the last time I saw my son.”

Cobb County detectives Phillip Stoddard and Kelli Cook converged at the crime scene, a dimly lit residential street. Smith was there. Vela’s girlfriend, 23-year-old Yainerys “Yaya” Gil was nearby.

As they surveyed Vela’s body and the area, the investigators observed something that stood out. “It appeared that he had run out of his shoes,” said Cook, adding that it appeared that he’d been fleeing the gunfire when he was killed.

Vela’s wallet was still on him, indicating this wasn’t a botched robbery. Seven 45 caliber casings were collected, along with blood, hair, clothing and fingerprint evidence.

With no eyewitnesses or surveillance footage to assist them, the detectives dug into Vela’s background. At 19, he and Gil settled down together. They had two children, ages 6 and 1.

Vela’s main source of income was buying in-demand fashion items and reselling them via a website. His plan was to open a store. 

Detectives learned from Smith that Vela’s merchandise had been stolen from his home earlier on the night he was slain. Police came to the house and took a report but found nothing suspicious in the area at the time. 

Detectives interviewed Gil. She told them that around midnight, hours after the burglary, Vela went outside to check for clues. He stumbled upon a clothing tag and decided to walk the street to see if he found any stolen clothes.

Vela approached a silver sedan to retrieve his merchandise, according to Gil. She told detectives she heard him say, “That’s my stuff,” before shots were fired. Gil’s description of the car was “very vague,” said Clark. She had no idea what the driver looked like.

Detectives were puzzled. The thieves already had the stolen merchandise. Why did they return to the area hours later? Had the killer been after more than clothes? 

Investigators searched Vela’s home. They found a marijuana in a cabinet that was larger than a personal stash. Police considered drugs as a possible motive. 

Detectives learned through various sources including informants that Vela was “a small-time drug dealer,” said Stoddard.

A photo of George Vela

Investigators ruled out drugs as the motive for Vela’s murder. As they worked the case, Gil appeared on TV demanding justice. Detectives asked her if anyone in Vela’s inner circle could be a suspect. 

She singled out two friends. One of them, Jesus, had allegedly stolen money and a chain from Vela. The other, Jamal Miller, reportedly had a dispute with the victim.

Miller downplayed the clash to detectives. He explained it was a misunderstanding that got a bit heated. Miller’s alibi for his whereabouts at the time of the shooting checked out.

Detectives learned that Jesus, who was despondent over Vela’s death, had stolen nothing from his friend. He told police that Vela believed that Gil was cheating on him, according to “The Real Murders of Atlanta.”

Vela’s suspicions were raised after he discovered that Gil had lied about where she had been and who she had been with one day. He found a receipt showing that she’d been at a gun range. Jesus didn’t know who she’d been with that day.

Investigators considered the possibility that Gil was involved in the slaying. At a local gun range, they tracked down Gil’s name in a log book

Detectives found it odd that Gil never mentioned this in their interviews. They dug deeper into her history. Vela's mother, Leigh Ann, told investigators that Gil had a troubled past and that she took her in when she was 15.

Investigators focused on Zackary Franks and Christopher Gutierrez, both 19 years old, who’d checked into the gun range the same days and times as Gil. Neither had criminal records. Detectives secured warrants for men’s cell phone records. 

They wanted to establish whether the men had a connection to the incident, specifically the location of the incident, according to Ryan Piechocinski, former Asst. District Attorney for Cobb County.

Phone records showed that Gil had texted Franks the day of the homicide about having Vela killed, according to detectives. There were also photos and video showing the two in “compromising positions,” said Cook. 

In shared messages they discussed having a baby together. “Love is a strong reason for people to commit homicides,” said Stoddard.

A mugshot ofYainerys Gil

There were also messages between Franks and Gutierrez about Gil wanting someone to kill “her husband, which is … how they refer to George even though they weren't legally married.”

Cellular location data showed that Franks was within about 55 yards of the homicide scene at the time it occurred. 

Investigators’ search for Franks led them to a Mexican restaurant where he was having lunch with Gil. After their meal, they went to a liquor store and police detained them in the parking lot. 

Around the same time, officers tracked down Gutierrez at an apartment and he was taken into custody.

Gil told detectives that she set up the burglary so that Vela would get out of the drug trade, according to the investigators. 

“She wanted to show him how dangerous the drug business was,” said Stoddard. “She did not mean for anybody to get killed.”

She implicated Gutierrez as the trigger man and the mastermind of the crime, investigators told producers. They recognized that Gil was trying to distance herself from the murder. 

Gutierrez confirmed that Franks and Gil were in a relationship and that she was looking to have Vela killed. He walked detectives through the events of the night of the murder. 

He said he and Franks had committed the burglary while Vela and Gil were watching “The Lion King” with their kids. He said he didn’t know why they returned to the area, but that Franks brought a gun. When Vela came up to their car, Franks fired. 

When Vela ran, Franks got out of the vehicle and kept shooting. Gutierrez admitted he drove the getaway car. Gutierrez’s account fit the evidence and suggested that the shooting was premeditated.

Gil, Franks and Gutierrez were arrested, reported NBC affiliate 11alive.com. The men were charged with the July 21, 2019 burglary as well as the July 22 murder of Vela. Gil was charged with murder. 

An arrest warrant obtained by WSB-TV alleges that Gil “did conspire with the co-defendants to have the victim killed,” People reported.

Through a plea deal, Gil was sentenced to 30 years in prison with the chance of parole. Gutierrez was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 15 years with the chance of parole. 

After a two-week trial, Franks was found guilty on all charges and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. 

To learn more about the case, watch “The Real Murders of Atlanta,” airing Fridays at 9/8c on Oxygen.