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‘I forgive you. I really do.’ Father of slain Fresno High grad addresses son’s killer

Several people sitting inside a Fresno courtroom on Tuesday wept as the father of a slain 20-year-old said he forgave his son’s killer, turning to the shooter’s family and talking about forgiveness.

Joseph Ornelas, 24, was sentenced to 19 years to life in state prison by Fresno County Superior Court Judge Arlan L. Harrell for the second-degree murder of Lee Major III, who had been a well-liked student and athlete at Fresno High.

“I was asked about revenge,” Lee Major Jr., the victim’s father, said in the courtroom. “I look at my family every day. I hold the same position from day one — forgive.”

The younger Major was at a small party of mostly friends Dec. 15, 2019, when witnesses said Ornelas started asking several party-goers if they “bang,” a slang term for being in a gang, according to Senior Deputy District Attorney Elana Smith.

Major and a some other young men asked Ornelas of Sanger to leave the party, which was at a Fowler home near Adams and Fowler avenues, prosecutors said.

Fresno’s Lee Major, center, celebrates with teammates after breaking up the final pass of the game against Sunnyside at McLane Stadium Friday, Oct. 16, 2015. Major was shot and killed in Fowler on early Sunday, Dec. 15, 2019.
Fresno’s Lee Major, center, celebrates with teammates after breaking up the final pass of the game against Sunnyside at McLane Stadium Friday, Oct. 16, 2015. Major was shot and killed in Fowler on early Sunday, Dec. 15, 2019.

Ornelas had been drinking heavily, prosecutors said. As Major turned to walk away, Ornelas pulled a gun and fired several rounds, hitting Major in the back three times and striking two others who survived.

Father of victim addresses shooter

The elder Major said he did not believe Ornelas was a bad person, but rather someone who made a bad decision in a fleeting moment.

“I forgive you. I really do,” said Major, addressing Ornelas. “No matter what backlash I get from my people.”

At one point he turned to family and friends of Ornelas as he spoke of forgiveness leading to multiple audience members letting out a sigh as they began weeping.

Latasha Williams, the younger Major’s mother, wrote in her letter to the court that she thanked Ornelas for admitting to the killing but said he took away a valuable asset to the community when he gunned down her son.

“You took my son away from his son,” she said inside the courtroom. “I pray he does his time and (you) learn what you did to this community.”

A memorial for Lee Major in front of Fresno High School on Echo Avenue on Sunday, Dec. 15, 2019.
A memorial for Lee Major in front of Fresno High School on Echo Avenue on Sunday, Dec. 15, 2019.

Shooter reads letter to court

Ornelas, wearing a red prison jumpsuit and facing the judge’s bench, read from a letter to the court he had written the previous day in which he pledged to be a better person.

“I want you to know I take complete responsibility for my actions that night,” he said, reading from the letter. “This day forward, I will make sure my ways show I’ve improved.”

Harrell noted Ornelas had no previous criminal record and admitted to the crimes before announcing the sentence, a reduced sentence from the maximum.

The younger Major left behind 13 brothers and sisters, and was a standout athlete in football and basketball at Fresno High, where he graduated in 2017.

The families of both Ornelas and Major have been affected by the slaying, as well as the many young people who witnessed the violence, Smith said. Many of those young people have since become afraid to go to gatherings.

Smith said testimony showed no evidence that Major was an aggressor or was doing anything more than protecting others at the party.

“It was clear why he was loved by so many,” she said.

Joseph Ornelas, 20, of Sanger is facing murder charges in the death of Lee Major III along with two charges of attempted murder.
Joseph Ornelas, 20, of Sanger is facing murder charges in the death of Lee Major III along with two charges of attempted murder.