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Saturday, March 09, 2019 1:00 am

Man, 23, pleads guilty to murder

Killed clerk on Thanksgiving 2017

MATTHEW LEBLANC | The Journal Gazette

A man who shot a gas station clerk to death on Thanksgiving night 2017 with what police said looked like a sawed-off shotgun faces up to 65 years in prison.

Victor M. Rivera, 23, pleaded guilty Friday to murder in the death of Jacob Walerko, 25.

Rivera entered the Meijer gas station on Lima Road about 8 p.m., shot Walerko, vaulted the store counter and took off with a carton of Newport cigarettes – a product worth about $70, police said.

Police arrested him the next day, after several people, including Rivera's mother and a 10-year-old girl, identified him as the man in a surveillance photo distributed by news outlets.

He was charged with murder, felony murder – one committed in the act of another felony – and robbery causing serious bodily injury; he pleaded guilty in Allen Superior Court to the felony murder charge as part of a plea agreement with prosecutors. A three-day trial had been scheduled next week. A sentencing hearing is scheduled May 17.

Several 911 calls drew police to the store, where witnesses said the gunman fled across the Meijer parking lot. A surveillance camera inside the store captured the shooting, and police took multiple calls from people who identified Rivera as the killer after news outlets posted images showing a man wearing a black hat. One caller said a man with a tattoo on his face similar to Rivera's had threatened store workers in early November, angry he didn't get a job there.

In a Nov. 24, 2017, interview with a police detective, Rivera denied killing Walerko. Shown photos posted to Facebook that showed him wearing “the same clothes that he was wearing during the shooting,” according to a probable cause affidavit, Rivera said he was at a friend's home all day.

The girl who identified Rivera as the man in the surveillance photo told police she knew what was printed on the hat the man in the picture wore.

“I solemnly swear I am up to no good,” it read.

mleblanc@jg.net