by Jane Fitzsimmons
On the afternoon of July 30, 2014, the preliminary hearing for a two-defendant assault and theft case began in Judge Rosenberg’s courtroom. The two defendants — Richard Lopez, represented by Attorney Robert J. Spangler, and Nicholas Morrison, represented by Deputy Public Defender Dean Johansson — allegedly attacked and robbed the victim after entering his motel room under false pretenses in the early hours of June 1, 2014.
The victim was the first witness called today by Deputy District Attorney Alvina Tzang. He was accompanied by a Russian-English interpreter. Under direct examination, it was established that the victim had been a guest at the Westwood Motel in West Sacramento for 3 days when the violent incident occurred. He was scheduled to check out the following day, on June 2.
At 3am, the victim was sleeping in the bed of his motel room when he was awakened by a knock on the door. Disoriented, he opened the door without looking through the peephole. Two men stood outside, holding a bag with sandwiches, and asked to enter the victim’s room in order to share a meal with him.
At this point, the witness informed Ms. Tzang that the evening before, at around 8pm, “the same thing happened, but a girl was with them and they were standing behind her.” Apparently, the trio asked the victim “for a little bit of money,” so he gave them some. Ms. Tzang asked how much, to which the witness responded, “I don’t know, $10 or $15.”
The trio then asked the victim if he would like to go buy food with them. “I was surprised by the question. I said no.”
“How much money did you have on you at the time?” wondered Ms. Tzang.
“I had $1,000 to $1,100 in my wallet. I don’t usually have that much money on me, but I withdrew a lot to pay for the hotel room and lunch.”
“When you gave them $10 or $15, did you take the money out of your wallet in front of them?”
After some reflection, the victim admitted, “Yes.”
“Why were you staying at the motel?”
“I had a misunderstanding with my wife, so I was staying there. Just a couple of days.”
“After the young men came by your motel the first time, what did you do?”
“I went back to sleep.”
The victim explained that when the men came back in the middle of the night on June 1 with sandwiches, he was hesitant to let them in, but did so anyway. He figured they needed somewhere to eat. The victim identified Mr. Lopez in the courtroom and said, “Right after I let them in, he grabbed my hand and used a stun gun on my arm. He was very aggressive.”
“When did you first see the stun gun?” Ms. Tzang asked.
“I didn’t see it until it touched my arm.”
With further prompting, the victim laid out what happened. “I didn’t lose consciousness, but I felt the electrical current pass through my body… I tried to get away from them because I understood I might lose consciousness… [Lopez] said ‘give us money or we’ll kill you.’ He started hitting me. You can still see the dark circles under my eyes.” The witness leaned forward and touched the lingering dark marks under his eyes while looking at Ms. Tzang. He continued, “The other young man was yelling, ‘His pants are right there. Let’s get them and leave.'”
Ms. Tzang questioned, “Did Mr. Morrison hit you?”
“I don’t know,” admitted the witness. “I was losing control. They grabbed my pants and ran away. Mr. Morrison grabbed my pants.” He paused for a moment, then said, “Correction. Mr. Lopez was yelling at Mr. Morrison to grab my pants.”
“What did you have in your pants?”
“My wallet, papers, house keys, car keys…” After grabbing his pants, the suspects fled the scene, according to the victim.
“Did you have any idea who these men were before the incident?”
The victim relayed an assertive, “No.”
“How many times did they hit you?”
“I don’t know. I had dark circles under my eyes, and all on the right side of my face. They injured my nose as well.” The victim admitted that he did not go to a doctor because he felt his injuries weren’t serious enough, although his bruises remain two months later.
“Do they still hurt?” asked Ms. Tzang.
“It doesn’t hurt.” He hesitated, then elaborated, “I don’t know if it’s related, but in the last 4 days, I’ve had headaches on the right side of my head. I also have a bump on my nose.”
Ms. Tzang had no further questions and Mr. Spangler began cross-examination of the witness. He established that the victim called the police twice after the incident took place, then the police arrived and he told them what happened.
“You said two individuals came, but you told the police that you don’t remember what one looked like. You said there was one with dark hair and he had the stun gun, correct?”
“No. That’s not what I said. The police officers must have misunderstood.”
“Did you tell the police that you didn’t see one of them?”
“I don’t remember,” the victim responded.
“Did you also tell the police that you didn’t remember what they were wearing?”
“I don’t remember,” the witness repeated.
Mr. Spangler asked the witness to describe the stun gun, whether it had one metal part or two, to which the victim replied, “It looked black colored. It looked like a stick. I couldn’t see. I don’t know why you’re asking me such questions.”
Judge Rosenberg cut in, “An attorney can ask you whatever they want. Just go with the flow.”
The victim shrugged, and Mr. Spangler asked in a monotone voice, “Were you drinking during the day?”
Without hesitating, the victim stated, “Yes. I was sad because of my wife.”
“I know when I’m drinking, sometimes I sleep more.” Mr. Spangler contemplated. “Were you sleeping because of drinking?”
“No, I had nothing else to do,” the victim replied, voice rising, but the interpreter relayed his response calmly in English.
Mr. Spangler queried, “Did someone tell you they knew who did this?”
“And the police got back ahold of you later and said ‘we got the guys’ and wanted you to look at some pictures, right?”
“No, it wasn’t like that. I told the police about the man who talked to me. They talked to him and asked if he would testify in court and he said yes.”
Mr. Spangler then had the victim explain that he was, in fact, given a lineup to identify one of his attackers, and he had identified Mr. Lopez. Mr. Spangler had no further questions and cross-examination was handed over to Mr. Johansson.
“I apologize in advance, to the victim, if my questions embarrass you at all. It’s not my intention.” The victim was not noticeably perturbed by this announcement.
Mr. Johansson began his line of questioning with, “You said a girl accompanied the two men when they first paid you a visit. How old do you think she was?”
“Hmm… maybe 18.”
“Was she a prostitute you had had an interaction with?”
Still seemingly unperturbed, the witness responded, “No.”
“Did you have a prostitute earlier that day?”
“No.” Then the witness added, “I may have talked to people because I had nothing else to do. I was also sleeping a lot and I don’t remember what was dream and what was not.”
Leaning back in his chair, Mr. Johansson asked casually, “Were you drinking a lot?”
“200 ml maybe.”
“I don’t know what that means,” Mr. Johansson smiled. Judge Rosenberg joked that someone would have to have to do the math for the court, but Mr. Johansson changed the question instead — “Were you taking shots?”
“Shots and drinking a lot of water and juices.”
“How many shots?”
“I drink seldom,” the victim responded with a stoic demeanor. “I bought a 375 ml bottle and I drank maybe half.”
The witness was then passed back to Ms. Tzang for re-direct, and she showed him a miscellaneous document as evidence. “Do you recognize this as your signature?”
“It’s not my signature, but my initials. ‘A’ for [the victim’s first name] and ‘V’ for [the victim’s last name].”
After this, the victim was excused and left the courtroom.
Ms. Tzang called the People’s second witness, Officer Andrea Donahue, a police officer in West Sacramento for 2.5 years who was on duty at 3:50am when she was dispatched to the Westwood Motel in response to the victim’s 9-1-1 call.
When Officer Donahue made contact with the victim, he was nervous, his face was bloody, and he appeared intoxicated due to slurred speech and alcohol on his breath. She said, “He speaks Ukrainian, so I called the department line to have a translator retrieve a statement. He was then able to answer my questions.”
Officer Donahue learned that the victim had given the suspects $5 in an earlier meeting, and 20 minutes before the police arrived, the men had come back. “The victim described them both as white males between 22 and 27. He said one was tall and thin with dark hair — the one with the stun gun. The one with the stun gun said he’d kill the victim if he didn’t give them all of his money. The victim believed his life was in danger.”
Ms. Tzang presented Officer Donahue with photos of the victim after the incident and asked her to identify them. She asked Officer Donahue, “What did the defendants take from the victim?”
“A California ID, business cards, one thousand in cash, and car keys.”
Officer Donahue explained she is familiar with the Westwood Motel because they receive calls there regularly. The motel is one story with anywhere from 12 to 20 rooms. According to Donahue, the defendants knocked on at least four rooms that night before getting lucky with the victim’s response.
“I have nothing further,” closed Ms. Tzang.
Mr. Spangler clarified with Officer Donahue that the victim sustained no visible injuries on his body. Mr. Johansson asked whether the area was known as a patrol area, to which Donahue confirmed, “Yes.”
Officer Donahue was excused and a third and final witness for the day was called by Ms. Tzang – Officer Cornell Smith, a police officer for 12 years, serving in the West Sacramento PD for the last 10. Judge Rosenberg interrupted the standard introduction in order to disclose that Officer Smith used to be his tenant, and that they corresponded solely via email. No sides took issue with the previously held relationship and direct examination continued.
Officer Smith told Ms. Tzang that a Mr. Brizosa spoke with Mr. Morrison when the suspect came to his hotel room and bragged about a “hit and lick.”
“Can you please explain what a hit and lick is for the courtroom?”
“Doing wrong by someone, generally.”
Following more prompts, Officer Smith said, “Morrison took $1,000 and went to Motel 6 in West Sacramento.”
“Does Mr. Morrison have any other theft related offenses?”
“To my knowledge, no.”
“Then what happened?” Ms. Tzang encouraged.
“I went to the Motel 6 to follow up on information given to me by Mr. Brizosa. I asked for the guest list and saw a ‘Nick Smith,’ which I found suspicious. I went to the room under the name and Nicholas Morrison answered the door.” Officer Smith was able to identify Mr. Morrison by a photo. When questioning Mr. Morrison, he received three different accounts of what had taken place in the Westwood Motel with the victim.
First, Mr. Morrison claimed he didn’t know anything and he was with his girlfriend at the Motel 6 the entire time. Next, he said, “I was there with Lopez, my friend, and I was a lookout.” He said Lopez attacked the victim, but he, himself, never went inside. Mr. Morrison’s final account was altogether different. “I did everything,” he reported. “No one else was involved. [The victim] disrespected me. Called me a punk. I hit him with a stun gun and beat him up.” Mr. Morrison still did not admit to the theft, however. When Officer Smith performed a search of Mr. Morrison’s backpack, he found a stun gun. Mr. Morrison quickly explained to the officer that the stun gun was his and he had used it against the victim.
Officer Smith, in response to a change in questioning by Ms. Tzang, described how the victim was able to recognize Mr. Morrison from a 20 to 30 foot distance through the windshield of a squad car. He identified Mr. Morrison as one of the men who had entered his motel room on June 1. In a photo lineup given separately, the victim was able to identify Lopez as the other man.
On June 3, a witness by the name of Mr. Sachs gave a statement to Officer Smith. “Morrison and Lopez came to his house, Sunday, June 1, and Morrison asked for a room,” began Officer Smith. “Sachs needed the money, so he said okay. When Morrison pulled out a wallet to pay, Sachs noticed it contained a lot of money.”
“Did you contact Mr. Lopez’s mom?”
“I contacted her on June 3. Then on June 8, I made contact with Mr. Lopez on accident. I was on duty and Lopez came running around the corner.”
Officer Smith talked to a woman named Catherine Archella, as well. According to Ms. Archella, Mr. Lopez thought Mr. Morrison gave him up because he never liked him. He blamed Archella for being partially responsible, as well, and spat in her face angrily. “He said to Ms. Archella that Morrison was a gang affiliate and he, Mr. Lopez, was a drop out.”
Ms. Tzang had nothing further for her third witness. There was no time left in court today for cross-examination by either defense attorney, therefore Officer Smith will come back tomorrow, as well as another witness. The preliminary hearing will roll over to July 31 at 1:30PM in Department Four.