On the morning of the court arraignment of Jesse Alvarez -- the man accused of killing Cathedral Catholic High School (CCHS) teacher Mario Fierro one week ago -- school parents were anxious and concerned, wondering if the school’s leaders knew more about potential problems with the murder suspect than were previously shared.
NBC 7 Investigates learned school administrators were well aware of Alvarez -- who pleaded not guilty on Wednesday -- and a growing list of suspicious behavior in the year leading up to the shooting, including an occasion where Alvarez had to be escorted off the high school’s campus by security.
Those revelations about Alvarez’s alleged behavior have led to stress for some parents, who are still coping with students who are mourning their teacher and coach’s death.
“The CCHS community would like to know that the administration took this situation seriously …” one parent told NBC 7 anonymously, fearing their student would be retaliated against if they spoke publicly.
The 37-year-old Fierro was a gifted social science teacher who also helped coach the CCHS football team. Students said he “inspired them” and was a mentor for all who needed guidance. Administrators said Fierro played a significant role in the school’s community and was recently engaged to marry another teacher at the school.
But on the morning of Feb. 1, 2021, tragedy struck.
Fierro was shot and killed outside of his North Park home on his way to school. The next day, San Diego police announced that they had arrested Alvarez for the crime.
Alvarez is due to be arraigned Wednesday morning on a first-degree murder charge. It's likely that he will enter a plea at that time
NBC 7’s reporting has found the victim and his alleged killer were not strangers.
Alvarez had a contentious past with Fierro's fiancee. Potential warning signs of Alvarez’s alleged erratic behavior were evident in a request for a domestic violence restraining order filed by Fierro’s fiancee in December 2019.
In it, the woman sought court protection from Alvarez after she said his actions started to scare her and that she “feared for her life.”
After ending their years-long relationship, the woman said Alvarez began “cyberstalking” her, trying to add her students and colleagues at school as friends on social media. One time, she noted, Alvarez allegedly attempted to get into her home using an old key. The woman reported the attempted break-in to San Diego police to have an official record of the incident.
In her request for a permanent restraining order, the woman listed Cathedral Catholic High School as her address. After receiving a temporary restraining order for a few weeks, the woman’s request for a permanent restraining order was denied on Jan. 22, 2020.
Along with his denial, Judge Daniel S. Belsky noted the court believed Alvarez was “very sincere” when he stated, under oath, that he would not contact the woman anymore following the hearing.
Now, NBC 7 has learned that’s not what happened.
The woman informed CCHS administrators of the temporary restraining order against Alvarez and the order’s expiration after it was denied, according to Kevin Eckery, a spokesman for the San Diego Catholic Diocese, which operates CCHS. Eckery said Alvarez’s picture was sent to the phones of campus security officers so that he could be identified if he tried to come on campus.
And in October 2020, Alvarez allegedly did just that.
Eckery would not say how far onto the campus Alvarez got.
“The principal, of all people, recognized him,” Eckery said. “He explained that he wasn’t welcome here, he wasn’t allowed to be here, he had no business here, and he was escorted off the campus. He left quietly without conflict.”
Eckery confirmed the school chose not to call the police or notify parents.
“We all wish we could change everything that happened with Jesse Alvarez and certainly with protecting the life of Mario Fierro,” Eckery told NBC 7 Investigates. “But at the time, given the information that we had, we took the appropriate steps.”
But Alvarez allegedly found another way to infiltrate the high school last fall, working with a vendor who did business at the school.
“But the first time [Alvarez] showed up, he was identified and escorted off-campus,” Eckery said.
A parent shared with NBC 7 a screenshot showing Alvarez’s Instagram account attempting to follow their child, a CCHS student -- an activity Fierro’s fiancee had alleged in her restraining-order request.
A parent said this screenshot shows Alvarez trying to follow their child, a CCHS student, on social media before the fatal shooting.
Then, on Jan. 25, 2021 -- nearly a week before the fatal shooting -- a video clip was posted on Instagram by students involved with the school’s weekly morning news program (“CCTV”), who had put out a request to the public for New Year’s resolutions. In the clip, Alvarez -- who looks younger than his 30 years -- is shown wearing a CCHS shirt and using his middle name, discussing his resolution, which was religious in nature. Parents showed the video to NBC 7 and said it had been sent into the students working on the program, none of whom had any idea that Alvarez was not a student on campus.
A screenshot from a video shared by a parent, who said Alvarez submitted it to the school’s broadcast program and posted online on Jan. 25, 2021.
Eckery said school administrators were unaware of the video, but after NBC 7 shared it with school staff, he said, “I think it shows how evil and manipulative the guy was.”
Claudia Bolanos has been following the unfolding events and details surrounding the fatal shooting, both with sorrow and anger.
Bolanos is a domestic-abuse survivor who serves on the survivor advisory committee of the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence. Bolanos believes more actions could have been taken by people in positions of authority who were clued into Alvarez and his behavior leading up to the shooting.
“The system actually failed the victim,” Bolanos said. "And when I mean the system, I mean the school."
Bolanos feels the school had an obligation to call the police and report Alvarez’s incidents on campus.
“You can have no idea what a perpetrator can do, and they could go into a school and not only would the teacher be harmed, but the children can be harmed too," Bolanos said. "And now, as a parent, you have no idea that this is even going on.”
Some feel, however, that in that type of scenario, calling the police could have the opposite effect.
“Sometimes, calling law enforcement can be the worst thing to do,” said Bob Martin, a former Los Angeles police captain.
Martin is now a senior advisor on school and workplace threat assessment for an international private security firm.
“When you go to the police and you allege that a crime has been committed, they are obligated to investigate it,” Martin said. “So they are obligated to talk to the victim and the suspect. And now what’s happening is they’re continuing a relationship between the victim and the suspect that she is trying to end.”
Martin said school administrators should not make these kinds of judgment calls; instead, it should be left to those with experience and domestic violence training.
“In this particular situation, I don’t think we have enough facts to say what they should do, or what they should have done," Martin said. "There are too many variables that we just don’t have the answer to.”
Martin and Bolanos both agree, however, that abusers are often manipulative and charismatic, undermining the real level of threat they may pose.
And that means employers need to take domestic violence incidents like this seriously.
“You’re dealing with people who are master manipulators,” Bolanos said. “When a survivor comes forward and tells you her situation, her circumstance and how serious it is, you need to believe them, because it’s not something that should be taken lightly.”
If you or a loved one are experiencing domestic violence, here is a link to some resources that can help. You can also call The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE (7233)