That body language should have been a signal, but when the judge announced that the jury was hopelessly deadlocked on what should have been the most difficult charge, it seemed everything was going according to form. Then the clerk read the jury’s verdict, and when the first charge came back guilty there was stunned silence. The family of the convicted silently wept.
Mr. Ornelas was found guilty on Friday of attempted murder and possession of/use of/assault with a semi-automatic firearm. Given a nearly twenty-year-old weapons charge conviction in State Court along with a possible conviction in federal court, he could be a three strikes case and he likely will face life in prison for a crime that, as you will see, is likely he did not commit.
In his favor, the finding of attempted murder was not a finding of a deliberate, pre-meditated act. However.,they have enough case enhancements that will be determined in the coming weeks that will put him away for a long time.
All of this was the result of an incident that occurred at a trailer park in West Sacramento in February of 2007. Mr. Ornelas was supposed to have been on the scene when three or more gunshots were fired from a gun admittedly belonging to Claudio Antonio Magobet. The alleged target was Abel Trevino, and all three men knew each other.
The prosecution’s case was difficult from the start, and relied exclusively on witness testimony as no physical evidence existed. The key players and witnesses, none of whom were outstanding citizens, all admitted or were said to have been under the influence of meth and alcohol. The shots intended for Mr. Trevino all missed.
Ms. Robin Johnson, attorney for the prosecution, argued in her opening statement that Mr. Ornelas was drunk and angry that night, and got into an altercation with Abel Trevino which resulted in Abel being chased around a vehicle and being shot at.
Complicating the case is the fact that the prosecution had cut a deal with co-conspirator Claudio Magobet, who would receive a four year sentence in exchange for his testimony against Mr. Ornelas. In the end, it seems that it was Mr. Magobet who had the motive, the gun, and the demeanor, and who most likely was the one who pulled the trigger, not Mr. Ornelas.
The defense attorney Rodney Beede would argue that Claudio Magobet was also charged with the same crime, but that he accepted a plea bargain (in which he admitted assaulting Mr. Trevino with a gun), and the jury would have opportunity to review that. Mr. Magobet was the owner of the gun in question, the defense would show that he had motive, and he had already admitted the act.
Mr. Beede said that Mr. Ornelas and Mr. Trevino had been childhood friends, maybe not best buddies, and that although both had been involved in various wrongdoings, they had no beef with each other. He said that it was not reasonable, nor probable, that Mr. Ornelas would attempt to murder Mr. Trevino. He said that the motive, a dispute over a girlfriend named Mindy McKinnon, existed between Mr. Magobet and Mr. Trevino, not Mr. Ornelas and Mr. Trevino. Mr. Trevino told the police arriving on the scene of the gunfire, that “this is all about a woman.” Mr. Trevino, in fact, had to be arrested so that he would testify against Mr. Ornelas.
The alleged victim in this case, Abel Trevino, testified on the first day of the trial and said that he did not recall any of the alleged incident. However, suddenly on the second day he would remember everything that occurred in amazing detail. DDA Robin Johnson asked Mr. Trevino twice if he had been coached and if anyone from the DA’s office, police, or others had told him what to say. He twice said no.
Mr. Trevino said that when he saw the queued-up DVD with a single image of his interview with police in his jail cell he was able to reconstruct the scene of the crime in his mind. He described Mr. Magobet and Mr. Ornelas coming over to the trailer of his friend, Ray Mata, whom he was visiting. He described going outside, and being chased around a truck as Mr. Ornelas shot at him. And he finally, using a diagram of the scene, described how he escaped after diving behind the trailer and getting stuck in the fence. He denied having seen the DVD of his interview in the jail cell.
Even the DVD of his interview could be viewed with mixed effects. When he first arrived, he seemed agitated and baffled that he would be shot over some woman who was in his words “nothing.” The problem is that Mr. Ornelas had no relations with that woman, but Mr. Magobet did. It was only part way through the interview, after prodding from the police, that he changed his story and started pointing at Mr. Ornelas.
One of the key witnesses for the prosecution seemed to point her finger away from Mr. Ornelas.
Tiffany Martinez, mother to Mr. Trevino’s children, who had also previously dated Mr. Magobet, said that Mr. Ornelas and Mr. Magobet may have joined her on that day at her place, and gotten high on meth with her. But her life at the time was crazy, and she remembers little. She has now been off meth for two years. She remembered being with Mr. Trevino that day, and that she had been taken with him to a motel room “for her safety.”
Ms. Martinez testified that although she doesn’t remember much, she knows that practically everything she told the police in her statement was a lie, and that she felt that Mr. Trevino and Officer Godden (and others present) intimidated her into naming Mr. Ornelas as being with Mr. Magobet that day, having Mr. Magobet’s gun, and being with Mr. Magobet in Mindy McKinnon’s brother’s vehicle. She said Officer Godden made statements as to what might have happened, and that she just agreed with them. She insisted that her statement on record was undoubtedly mostly lies.
Officer Steve Godden of the West Sacramento Police Department described the interview of Tiffany Martinez at the motel, and said that she never indicated fear of Mr. Trevino, but seemed fearful of Mr. Ornelas. He says he did nothing to intimidate her in the interview, and that he did not ask her leading questions. He said his grocery store trip for her was not used as leverage to get her to make statements that he wanted to hear. Yet when his report was produced to refresh, he did not recall what showed in the report, a statement that he had been angry at Ms. Martinez and Mr. Trevino, and had said something about “now you can do something for me.”
Officer Godden admitted under cross-examination that he did nothing to try to modify Ms. Martinez’s statement when she called to recant, even though she called before anyone was arrested. There was no written report of this call, and he never went out to re-interview her. He indicated that it was simply too late to change the statement, and that his report had probably already been processed when she called.
Criminal investigator Sonia Mariscal confirmed that Tiffany Martinez was saying by July 2007 that she had lied in her Feb 2007 statement, and that she was most afraid of Abel. Ms. Martinez described to Ms. Mariscal the way Officer Godden had presented his questions to her, making leading statements that only required a yes or no response.
About neighbor John Gilman, Ms. Mariscal said that she interviewed him in 2007, and again recently. She said he really doesn’t remember everything now, but he seemed very clear about the events that he saw when she talked to him in 2007. He described the chaser as Hispanic, about 30 [which fits Mr. Magobet’s description, not Mr. Ornelas’, who is a bit older], dark hair and wearing a red shirt, that he did not recognize the guy but that “he was definitely NOT Rudy [Ornelas].” He said Mr. Ornelas could have been there at the time, but he did not see him.
That left the only clear testimony as to what had happened in the hands of Claudio Magobet, who had of course cut a deal with prosecutors in which he would take a four year sentence in exchange for turning on Mr. Ornelas.
Claudio Magobet testified that he had been only drinking alcohol on the day in question, the night that his girlfriend Mindy McKinnon took off with his wallet. He admitted that he was upset, that Mr. Ornelas called him to say he saw Ms. McKinnon with the wallet, and with Abel, and that Rudy offered to help him look for them.
Mr. Magobet said he took one of his guns (as he often did, to make himself feel safer when he went out) along because he was wary of Mr. Ornelas, but that after a little while he thought it was safe to let Mr. Ornelas have the gun.
He described a day of driving around, checking many hangouts, Mr. Ornelas keeping the gun in his waistband, being at Martinez’s, smoking meth with her, noticing she and Mr. Ornelas going off together, then all of them becoming paranoid when they saw police outside, so that Mr. Ornelas dropped the gun.
Eventually, they ended up at Ray Mata’s trailer, where he said Mr. Ornelas thought Mr. Trevino was trying to cut into his drug-dealing profit (although Mr. Trevino had testified that he was a user and not a dealer, and that Mr. Magobet and Mr. Ornelas were the dealers), and was angry that Ms. McKinnon had taken a set of keys from him.
Mr. Magobet described Mr. Trevino punching and running from Mr. Ornelas, and drew a diagram similar to Mr. Trevino ’s (from the day of testimony when Mr. Trevino suddenly remembered the events) of the flight path around the vehicle. He then described the two of them leaving before the police came, and several hours of escapades that included running out of gas and swapping cars.
Angelina Ornelas, Mr. Ornelas’ wife, swore that no car keys were ever stolen from them, that Abel told her personally that he was sorry that Mr. Ornelas was arrested, and that he was going to clean himself up and straighten this out. She said that Mr. Magobet also came to her, asked her and Mr. Ornelas to stay quiet about everything, and that he and his lawyer would get Mr. Ornelas out of this mess.
She said that Mr. Magobet told her that he was the one who did the shooting and that it was his mess. She said that, to ensure her silence for the time being, he gave her a blue Camaro (and she produced the DMV records), the spare key to his Lexus, $100 and his promise that he would straighten everything out. She pointed out that she was not a part of any of this drug culture, and had never done drugs herself.
Some days later, she had heard about an incident involving Mr. Ornelas, and wondered if it were connected to Mr. Magobet’s appearance at her door. She mentioned the odd coincidence to someone named Mike, and that person passed it on, and it eventually came to the attention of the defense.
The People’s closing argument touched on the admission that Mr. Magobet had been arguing with Ms. McKinnon and that he was angry when she took his wallet and left while he was asleep. Ms. Johnson said he was surprised when Mr. Ornelas called him and offered to help him, but that Mr. Ornelas was intent on finding his own stolen keys. Rudy ended up with the gun, and Mr. Magobet did not foresee any trouble.
Ms. Johnson said that the people who claim to have seen Mr. Ornelas with the gun corroborate each others’ testimony, and Abel’s reluctance to testify was due to fear of the Ornelas family. The prosecution pointed out that the charge of conspiracy applies, as the described conduct led to an “agreement,” and then only one of three overt acts is required.
Mr. Beede, for the defense, complimented the prosecutor, but said that her version, though plausible, is only an incredible story. Mr. Trevino said from the start that it was all over a woman, “nothing,” and that Mr. Magobet was vicious, violent, angry and had guns.
Mr. Trevino named Rudy at the start because the immediate appearance on the scene of his parole officer suggested that he was going to be sent back to prison. Mr. Magobet was a vicious drug dealer, Abel a drug addict…any drug dispute was probably between them, and the issue of Mindy was adequate motive.
Tiffany Martinez tried to recant her statement as soon as she was away from Mr. Trevino, Angelina has actual proof of her claim to the payoff by Mr. Magobet, specifically the Camaro story (and she even gave the car away to Claudio’s ex, Michele, who was fleeing the crazed Mr. Magobet).
Mr. Trevino described in the DVD that “they went for their belts and I knew what time it was.” He punched, turned and ran, not running backwards, and never saw the gun brought out by either man.
Cathy Perez had no motive to lie about Claudio, so “how much more do you need [to see that Mr. Magobet did it]?” According to Perez, Mr. Magobet was trying to hide, while Rudy made no attempt to hide from the police.
Mr. Beede even stated that he felt he had successfully prosecuted a case for the first time, because it should be apparent that Mr. Magobet is guilty, beyond a reasonable doubt.
The People then refuted, admitting that Mr. Magobet could have had bad intent, but insisting that it was Mr. Ornelas who fired the gun. Ms. Johnson said that Tiffany had really just said that she “didn’t want her statement written down” (not that her statement was a lie), out of fear of Rudy. Ms. Johnson said that Abel, too, was afraid of Mr. Ornelas, and hated Rudy’s “smirking” demeanor at trial (to this observer, Mr. Ornelas looked upset and wronged).
She further stressed that Angelina Ornelas was manipulating the jury, and that her story makes no sense. The People also said that Cathy Perez tells a fantastic story…why would Claudio come to her door like that, and why did she only tell someone named Mike? Ms. Johnson insisted that Rudy Ornelas should be held accountable.
The difficulty in a case like this is who to believe. There would seem to be credible doubt as to whether Mr. Ornelas pulled the trigger on that fateful day. Besides the radically-changing testimony of Abel Trevino, the claim of a false statement by Tiffany Martinez, and several failures of witnesses to remember events (especially over time, and with memories that were “under the influence”), there were several discrepancies on some details. Virtually everyone admits to being in a drug-induced fog.
In the end, the jury probably chose to believe the side that prosecutors and law enforcement chose to believe. Indeed, the most credible testimonies were those of the law enforcement personnel, but it should be noted that none of the officers were eyewitnesses. Their testimonies were to the verity of the taking of the other witnesses’ statements.
Juries may tend to believe officers’ testimonies more than those of ordinary citizens, even though they would have had to assert in jury selection that they could remain neutral in evaluation of the credibility of testimony. But the officers’ testimonies are based solely upon the admissible hearsay of the interviews they conducted.
The Vanguard watched the entire trial from beginning to end. I personally watched over half including the key testimony of Mr. Trevino, Mr. Magobet, and the closing statements. To myself and my team, the verdict was baffling. The jury somehow chose to believe Abel Trevino through his flip-flop of testimony and his decision to fail to appear, which led to his being arrested and held in custody until he testified. Moreover, in the jail house interview, he named Mr. Magobet and described the conflict as being one over a girl – that would point the finger not at Mr. Ornelas but at Mr. Magobet.
The jury also chose to believe Claudio Magobet, even though he had cut a plea bargain that is setting him free after time served.
In the end, Mr. Ornelas has a history of committing mostly minor crimes. He had a history of using drugs. But from all of the evidence presented at trial, it would appear that Mr. Magobet had the motive and opportunity to shoot Mr. Trevino, not Mr. Ornelas.
The prosecution has in our view, put a dangerous man on the streets and locked up an innocent man. It was a difficult verdict for all of us to stomach, having spent two weeks following the trial. It is a reminder that despite the notion of innocent until proven guilty, there remains a presumption of guilt and the benefit of the doubt goes to the side that law enforcement chooses to side with.
—David M. Greenwald reporting