WENTWORTH — Jose Silvano Alvarez Jr. repeatedly broke into Troy and LaDonna French’s Rockingham County home. He watched them sleep. He liked the way their clothes dryer smelled. And when he was caught coming from the second floor of their house, he killed the couple to make his escape.
Attorneys painted a picture of Alvarez as a man fixated by the details of the French home.
On Friday, four years after their deaths, Alvarez, 29, of 2811 Cottage Place, Apt. A, in Greensboro pleaded guilty in Rockingham County Superior Court to two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of the Frenches.
Judge Ed Wilson sentenced Alvarez to two life sentences, which will run consecutively. He is not eligible for parole.
“Mr. Alvarez, you will die in prison,” Wilson said.
Alvarez apologized in court.
“I do regret what happened,” he said. “If I could take it back, I would. I am sorry.”
Rockingham County District Attorney Craig Blitzer said the case is closed and that no other person is being sought in the homicides.
Both Blitzer and defense attorney Vincent Rabil recounted details of what happened on Feb. 4, 2012, saying Alvarez broke into the house periodically in the six months before the homicides. On the night of the slayings, the Frenches’ daughter, Whitley, 19, was home.
Rabil said Alvarez went to the French house out of curiosity after seeing Whitley French’s address on her driver’s license. She was dating his younger brother and left the identification on the counter at the Alvarez home.
He got into the French house using a spare key — knowledge of hiding places he gained as a landscaper.
Alvarez eventually made a copy of the key and broke into the French house periodically, Rabil said. Sometimes the Frenches weren’t home.
“He was fixated on smells,” Rabil said, saying Alvarez particularly liked the smell of dryers. “The (French) house was a model home. Everything was new and freshly painted.”
Rabil said he considered self-defense, Alvarez’s mental health and an insanity defense as options at trial, particularly after testing by a psychologist, but determined the evidence against Alvarez was overwhelming.
During one of the break-ins, Alvarez stole Troy French’s Hi-Point 9 mm gun, attorneys said. French never reported it stolen. Alvarez had it with him when he broke into the French house.
Blitzer said that night Alvarez walked into Whitley French’s room, she woke up when a floorboard creaked. She screamed at the sight of a masked man and pulled a sheet over her head. Alvarez jumped on her bed to stifle her screams, hitting her arm with a knife. When she continued to scream Alvarez fled, encountering Troy and LaDonna French near the base of the stairs and shooting them multiple times.
Alvarez injured himself putting away his knife and reaching for the stolen gun on the stairs, Blitzer said, leaving behind crucial evidence that would take three years and multiple crime labs to identify.
Investigators were unable to identify to whom the blood belonged until mid-2015, when a lab in Texas identified it as a familial match to John Alvarez, the defendant’s brother who was married to Whitley French by then. Investigators asked Jose Alvarez Jr. for a DNA sample, which he voluntarily gave.
“The motive in the murders was just escape from that house,” Blitzer said. “It was not about an attraction to Whitley.”
The gun, knife and clothes used in the homicides and break-in were never recovered. Attorneys said Alvarez told them he threw the gun and clothing into a dumpster near his house.
Blitzer and Sheriff Sam Page said they stand by Whitley, who moved out of the state after Alvarez’s arrest. Blitzer also read aloud in court a letter delivered to Alvarez from the News & Record following his arrest. In the letter, Alvarez was asked to give his account of the shootings. Blitzer said the print media contributed to a negative opinion against Whitley and potentially tainted the jury pool.
The French family spoke in court Friday. They said they were glad Alvarez was not given the death penalty, giving him time to think about what he did.
Jordan Hayes, LaDonna French’s nephew, said the family is destroyed by what happened.
“I’m glad you’re going to rot in jail,” he said to Alvarez. “I hope you rot in hell.”
Jordan Hayes’ mother, Kathy, is LaDonna French’s sister. She lives next to the French house and said the death of Troy and LaDonna French has been difficult. She said her sister missed family milestones like graduations, weddings and birthdays.
“She and Troy have missed everything,” Hayes said, crying. “I miss her deep laugh and her funny ways.
“You have made your own family suffer,” Hayes said to Alvarez. “I love your parents and brother, but you have broken their hearts.”