by Antoinnette Borbon
As the 2014 year comes to a close, I took some time to reflect on all of the infamous cases I have covered as a reporter for the Vanguard.
One of the first cases that came to mind is the case against 11 men who were arrested and charged with gang-affiliated drug crimes.
Operation Red Sash was the name authorities gave to the year-long undercover operation in which YONET (Yolo County Narcotics Enforcement team) and the Yolo County Gang Task Force worked together before raiding the homes of the 18 alleged gang members. Only 11 men would be charged.
But during a lengthy trial, four of the 11 arrested, were acquitted on the gang enhancements. There was not enough evidence to prove in the end that anything was for the benefit of a gang.
Most of the men had gone through a de-briefing while in prison.
However, Deputy District Attorney Robin Johnson was not satisfied that the men were non-active gang members and pursued getting a conviction.
Putting up a powerful defense, Attorneys John Brennan, Dan Olsen, J. Toney, and Clark Head tore the entire case of Operation Red Sash apart.
Ultimately, charges were reduced to drug possession with priors on some.
Involved in the undercover operation were two seasoned drug enforcement agents.
Gary Richter and Ryan Bellamy testified to buying drugs from the defendants during their operation. Both Richter and Bellamy worked in conjunction with the gang task force. But the raid netted only small amounts of methamphetamine and cash after a year-long investigation.
Even though drug task force had put their time in on the case, alongside the gang task force, jurors were not convinced the drug offenses were committed for the benefit of the street gang, “Broderick Boys.”
The second trial, involving the other defendants arrested in the raid, was dismissed with plea bargains.
Attorney David Garland went back and forth with his client, Valentino Castanon, for nearly an hour before getting him to agree to the plea.
Castanon, who later spoke with the Vanguard, asserted his innocence. He told the Vanguard he had nothing to do with the men of West Sacramento and had no gang affiliation with them.
But he did admit guilt to absconding while on parole. He was charged with possession of meth found in his girlfriend’s home in Woodland, and having priors.
Attorney Jeff Raven’s client’s charges were dropped due to lack of evidence. It put an end to any other trials involving the rest of the 11 defendants.
Operation Red Sash was a difficult case to show that gang enhancements were untrue.
The gang task force testified that most gang members are still affiliated with some sort of gang even after a de-briefing, once released from prison, for the purpose of protection.
But jurors in this case felt otherwise.
One juror told the Vanguard, “There was just not enough evidence presented to prove this was to benefit any gang.”
Operation Red Sash was squashed.
Another trial, one of the most controversial, was the state’s case against a young man who had allegedly shaken his two-month-old baby, causing the infant’s death.
Deputy District Attorneys Steve Mount, Robin Johnson and Chris Jung worked hard to prove that the infant had not fallen off the bed as the defendant claimed, but that instead he was shaken roughly enough to cause several injuries, leading to his death.
More than a few doctors testified during trial, giving contradicting testimony.
Some of the defense’s doctors even admitted they had not taken time to look at X-rays or the reports of other doctors.
But a forensic neurologist, Dr. Omalu, testified to dissecting the baby’s brain. In his lengthy testimony, Omalu pointed out multiple injuries, involving both sides of the brain and orbital areas, attributable to shaken baby syndrome.
In his exam, he also found broken ribs, of a squeezing type of fracture.
Evidence was strong against the man, according to the prosecution, but jurors went against that notion with an acquittal.
The trial of People vs. Stone proved to be one of the most emotional trials of the year.
In the end, the case raised many questions surrounding the science of shaken baby syndrome, demonstrating a need for updated research/facts. It also begged for deeper investigations into these types of deaths and their causes.
Another death of a child occurred in People vs. Talamantes. In this trial, the defense fought for “guilty by reason of insanity.”
A Davis woman who had suffered physical, mental, and sexual abuse, causing mental health issues, drowned her little girl in a tub after a welfare check by police was done which found her to be okay, according to testimony.
Deputy District Attorney Ryan Couzens discredited the insanity defense.
During trial, the defendant’s sister testified that Talamantes suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, but no actual diagnoses of it was discovered during trial.
Couzens revealed that Talamantes had been asking her sister to send her information about mental disorders.
Couzens expressed in closing that Ms. Talamantes was not willing to take personal accountability for her actions.
During the defense’s case, a story emerged about a horrific childhood involving several types of abuse, which pushed Ms. Talamantes into an awful state of mind on the morning she took the life of her little girl.
Officers who testified about that day wept as they gave an account of the events.
Videotape from the police dashcam showed officers trying to resuscitate little Tatiana Talamantes when they found her in the trunk of her mother’s car.
Couzens explained that Ms. Talamantes was fully aware of what she had done that morning. He pointed out that she had made the commitment to drowned the little girl, then put her in a bag in the trunk and drove to Sacramento. Talamantes was seen at an ATM taking out money. She had also stopped by her old apartment complex to pick up a deposit check.
In his emotionally provoking closing, Couzens told jurors that Talamantes exhibited calm behavior after killing her daughter and was trying to escape personal accountability by claiming the insanity defense.
But the defense explained that Talamantes suffered from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and other paranoid disorders, for which she had been taking medicine inconsistently.
Talamantes had been using recreational drugs during periods of her life as a means of coping with her illness too, defense asserted.
The jurors wasted no time in convicting Ms. Talamantes, disbelieving the insanity plea.
At the top of the heap of 2014’s most talked about cases is that of a young boy who suffered from deep depression. A depression which stemmed from several factors.
It was a story about a young boy to whom doctors had given SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) to cope and control his depressive state, some of which may have caused him to experience homicidal thoughts.
Daniel Marsh, at 12 years old, had once been deemed a hero. Daniel saved his dad’s life as he suffered a heart attack while driving.
That event would later be one of Daniel’s first morbid accounts of experiences which troubled him, that he expressed to therapists.
While there had been little knowledge of the emotional abuse Marsh may have suffered at the hands of his parents, it too was deemed a contributing factor in his depression.
Although Marsh was able to express himself very well to therapists, it was alleged that some ignored the seriousness of what was going on in his troubled mind.
To most who knew the boy, he was an above-average kid, soft-spoken, articulate in his thoughts, intelligent, and talented.
Over time, Daniel became withdrawn from classmates. He was thought of as dark, and bullied by some. It intensified his depressive feelings.
School counselor at Davis High felt Marsh’s behavior was dangerous and had asked his doctor to think about an alternative schooling for Marsh. But it didn’t happen.
In fact, for a year-long period, Marsh went unseen by his Kaiser doctor, even though prescriptions were continuously refilled, changed or increased. At one point, Marsh was taking four to five different medications, all of which were apparently causing terrible side effects.
After several attempts at suicide, Marsh’s depression deepened. He explained to therapists the dreams he was having about killing people.
But Marsh also expressed to doctors, “I don’t want to feel this way anymore, I want them to stop.” He had reported these feelings for more than two years.
Marsh stated to doctors that he felt “out of body” experiences at times and often did not know if he was in a dream or reality.
Marsh admitted to becoming obsessed with dark things and researching serial killers. He watched horror films with friends as he smoked marijuana and drank to try to help calm his thoughts and/or feelings, he told doctors.
But, on the night of April 14, 2013, it was too late.
Marsh made a decision to carry out those horrific thoughts.
He adorned himself in black and set out to find a person to subdue his urges.
It was after checking about 50 houses, Marsh stated to the FBI agent, that he found an open window at the home of an elderly couple in Davis.
As he crept in and headed towards the bedroom, his adrenaline took over.
Daniel confessed to what he felt in his mind to be that of a “sure real experience, higher than being on opiates.” It gave him a high for a few days afterwards, he told the FBI agent.
Daniel says, “as I stood there in the bedroom, I knew it was too late to turn back, I had to go through with it.”
The case against Daniel Marsh concluded with differences of opinion, some viewing Marsh as “evil.”
But for others, Daniel’s story gained empathy.
The case brought attention to tactics of interrogation and a defendant’s constitutional rights. It also brought to the forefront the confidentiality between patient and therapist and when it should be broken, and our mental healthcare system.
Another concern about the case was child vs. adult defendant and the insanity phase.
Lead Deputy Public Defender Ron Johnson filed motions to keep media from attending trial for fear of biasing a jury. But they were denied.
Prosecutor Amanda Zambor described Marsh as “sadistic, cunning, calculating,” as he carried out the crime that night.
Family members and friends filled the courtroom each day.
Jurors took little time to deliberate on both the first degree murder charges and the insanity phase of trial.
Daniel Marsh was found to be sane and guilty of all charges.
During the four-week trial, some media outlets portrayed Marsh as lacking “emotion, unaffected,” however, there were times when he appeared affected by testimony, per the Vanguard‘s accounts.
Marsh hung his head, red-faced and covering his eyes, during parts of the trial.
Johnson explained to jurors that Marsh had been taken off all SSRIs and was doing much better.
Marsh still suffers from depression but has no more psychotic thoughts, the defense asserted.
One doctor testified that a “dissociative disorder” could not be ruled out but would need further testing.
Recently, Marsh was sentenced to 52 years with a chance of parole.
A premeditated domestic homicide of a Winters woman, Leslie Pinkston, was also a case of interest.
The case involved an ex-boyfriend who had stalked and abused Ms. Pinkston, ending in tragedy.
William Gardner III had a female acquaintance drive him to Winters and park as he got off of her van and walked over to the black BMW of Pinkston’s.
He slid into the backseat of the SUV and shot her in the back of the head.
Leslie Pinkston became yet another victim of domestic abuse in our county.
Gardner and Pinkston had dated for a period of five or so years. Friends and family members testified to the relationship being tumultuous.
Leslie Pinkston had tried to break the relationship off with Gardner but it fueled a fire.
Gardner had a long history of domestic abuse against other girlfriends and had also been using some of the women to prostitute for him.
After shooting Pinkston as she sat in her car, Gardner fled to Las Vegas where U.S. Marshals and Las Vegas police found him holed up in a friend’s apartment.
While the apartment was surrounded by authorities, Gardener phoned Derek Shore from a local news station. Derek tried to get Gardner to tell him what happened and why, but Gardner eluded his questioning.
Gardner and Shore’s taped conversation was played for jurors. But the conversation gave little information into the events of Ms. Pinkston’s death.
Gardner surrendered after awhile and was brought back to face first degree murder charges with enhancements.
Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Riesig was the prosecuting attorney, along with Deputy District Attorney Deanna Hays.
Riesig explained Gardner’s actions as “deliberate and intentional,” stating Gardner carried out a planned execution, surprising his victim by hiding in the backseat of her car.
On the morning of her death, Pinkston was seen talking on her cell phone. Witnesses testified that she sounded upset. It was moments later that she walked outside to get inside of her SUV.
Gardner waited in the backseat.
Some of the ex-girlfriends and acquaintances of Gardner’s testified to his abusive behavior. Some admitted to being prostitutes for the man.
Gardner showed no reaction.
Gardner was convicted after a short deliberation.
Although Ms. Pinkston had helped to bail out Gardner after a stalking incident, she was not notified once he was released. In Pinkston and Gardner’s jail phone conversation, she told Gardner she still loved him.
In fact, testimony proved there to be about a thousand phone calls to Ms. Pinkston from Gardner while he sat in Yolo County Jail.
It raised some questions.
According to a domestic abuse therapist, Pinkston’s behavior was typical of a woman who was in the “honeymoon phase” of a domestic violence relationship.
She explained that often times after a woman is abused, they will go back to the person and things will resemble a “honeymoon type” stage. Most women believe their abuser will not do it again.
As Gardner left the courtroom after sentencing, he accused his counsel of being a racist and the judge of being a Klansman.
Family and close friends of Leslie Pinkston attended the trial to its duration.
Some were overcome with emotion after the verdict was read. Hugging and holding hands, they comforted one another and thanked our DA for swift justice.
But perhaps one of the most troubling cases, to me, is the four co-defendant alleged gang case that is now headed for a fourth trial, if the judge allows.
One of the most troubling aspects is the fact that we have now had two hung juries, each time with a juror or two stating they did not have enough evidence to convict.
One of the supposed trials got as far as opening statements, when a juror admitted to knowing two of the defendants.
Each time the case had a full trial, no real new evidence was provided on either side. A few Facebook pages were added but were, at best, ambiguous.
An even greater factor is that the four Hispanic men were convicted of gang enhancements. It is problematic because from Penal Code section 186.20 et seq, gang-related crimes should accompany a conviction of an underlying crime, although there is apparently ambiguity in the code which has led to some gang enhancements being treated as stand-alone crimes.
The only one of the of four men who was convicted of robbery and evading police was Juan Fuentes. It left the remaining three carrying the gang enhancement conviction.
Another concern is how much this case has already cost taxpayers and how much more we will pay for a possible conviction. Is it all worth it?
Perhaps it is time to count the cost.
In the last Vanguard Event we focused on Prosecutorial Misconduct, in which we featured Scott Sanders from Orange County who spoke about cases with problems.
This co-defendant alleged gang case definitely reveals a list of problems, both legally, financially and perhaps ethically.
Each case exhibits its own individual issues, raising awareness where it is so desperately needed.
Whether the focus be on a mental health issue, domestic abuse, drug effects, insanity pleas or gang-related charges, all of these cases provoke thoughts for change.