FARGO — A Moorhead man was sentenced Monday, Jan. 13, to 35 years in prison for the fatal drive-by shooting of 20-year-old Gabriel Perez outside a McDonald’s restaurant in Fargo.

The sentence angered Perez's family members who shouted obscenities at the shooter, 45-year-old Miguel Jay Cooley, as they left the courtroom. Cooley pleaded guilty in August to a Class AA felony count of intentional murder in Cass County District Court.

Perez's grandfather, Louis Perez, told The Forum after Monday's hearing that the sentence did not fit the crime. He said the family was not pleased with the outcome.

"He wouldn't want to have one of his kids, you know, hurt. An eye for an eye," Louis Perez said, ominously referring to Cooley.

Louis Perez, grandfather of Gabriel Perez, points to Miguel Jay Cooley as he reads his victim impact statement in Cass County District Court on Monday, Jan. 13. David Samson / The Forum
Louis Perez, grandfather of Gabriel Perez, points to Miguel Jay Cooley as he reads his victim impact statement in Cass County District Court on Monday, Jan. 13. David Samson / The Forum

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The courtroom was nearly standing room only with family and supporters of the victim and defendant. Prior to his sentencing, Cooley spent much of the time smiling and whispering to his family seated behind him.

Before District Judge Steven Marquart handed down his sentence, Perez's sister, Lisette, described to the courtroom what kind of person her brother was.

"He welcomed everyone with open arms. He always had a positive outlook on life. He always gave the best advice," she said. "It's been a tough year for our family and I. When you lose someone you love, it's painful. But when you lose someone to murder, it's a different kind of pain.

"He had his whole life ahead of him, but Cooley decided to take matters into his own hands. Miguel can see or talk to his family whenever he wants, he has that choice, but we don't."

Judge Steven Marquart listens to victim impact statements during the Miguel Jay Cooley sentencing in Cass County District Court on Monday, Jan. 13. David Samson / The Forum
Judge Steven Marquart listens to victim impact statements during the Miguel Jay Cooley sentencing in Cass County District Court on Monday, Jan. 13. David Samson / The Forum

Monday's sentence of 35 years in prison (50 years with 15 years suspended) was a joint recommendation by the prosecution and defense that the judge went along with.

Cooley received credit for having already served 445 days in custody. In addition to prison time, he must also serve 10 years of supervised probation. He faced a maximum possible sentence of life in prison without the chance of parole.

Prosecutor Josh Traiser said he knew the recommended sentence didn't fit Cooley's crime.

"It nearly is a life sentence," Traiser said. "If he were to earn good credit ... the earliest time of release would be the year 2048. At that time, he would be nearly 75 years old. This may not be a fair sentence, but it is a just sentence."

Traiser added: "The whole reason we're here today is because Mr. Cooley did something ... unforgivable and immensely unfair. When he killed Gabriel Perez, he took more years from that young man than he has left to give."

Gabriel Perez
Gabriel Perez

Cooley's attorney, Steve Mottinger, said he believed the sentence was fair, noting that Cooley did not have a significant criminal record.

"All that set aside, I understand where Perez's family is coming from. This is something that did not need to happen. It was not planned over a series of weeks. Judge, I understand where these people are coming from. I suspect I would have some of those same feelings. I suspect all of us would," Mottinger said. "This is a good man who made a terrible mistake."

Rebecca Perez, Perez's aunt, cried before addressing the courtroom.

"I will never forget the day I found out Gabriel had been murdered," she said. "I didn't want to believe it. He is really gone. Gabriel was a free spirit, and it didn't matter what he was going through. He loved his friends and family."

"I don't think Cooley should get out of prison," Rebecca Perez added. "He didn't give my nephew a chance to live out his life. Cooley shouldn't get that either."

Police released this surveillance camera image of a vehicle possibly involved in a deadly drive-by shooting outside the McDonald’s restaurant on Main Avenue in downtown Fargo in September 2018. Special to The Forum
Police released this surveillance camera image of a vehicle possibly involved in a deadly drive-by shooting outside the McDonald’s restaurant on Main Avenue in downtown Fargo in September 2018. Special to The Forum

The shooting happened about 5:20 a.m. on Sept. 23, 2018. Cooley drove to the McDonald’s on Main Avenue in Fargo, which is now shuttered, and fired a gun at Perez who was sitting on a curb, according to court documents and information provided in previous court hearings.

Prosecutors have said Cooley fired three rounds at Perez and that the medical examiner found Perez had been struck three times. The medical examiner concluded the gunshot wounds were the cause of death.

Cooley fled the Fargo area after the shooting and was arrested the next day in Mower County in southeast Minnesota, prosecutors said. Police located the Chevrolet Trailblazer used by Cooley during the shooting, and found a spent .45 caliber casing by the windshield. Cooley also tried to remove unique stickers on the vehicle in an attempt to disguise it, according to court records.

Court records show investigators believed Cooley became jealous over a possible relationship between his wife, Izetta Cooley, and Perez. But Izetta Cooley previously told The Forum that no such affair existed.

Mourners created a memorial for Gabriel Perez after he was fatally shot outside the McDonald’s restaurant on Main Avenue in downtown Fargo in September. Forum file photo
Mourners created a memorial for Gabriel Perez after he was fatally shot outside the McDonald’s restaurant on Main Avenue in downtown Fargo in September. Forum file photo

On Monday, Perez's grandfather came to court with papers filled with signatures petitioning the judge for a harsher penalty for Cooley.

"If he was jealous of his woman, he should have restrained her," Louis Perez said. "We don't want him free."