Commentary: Another Fantastical DA Press Release in the Bonilla Case

photo by Lauren King, Court Watch Intern
photo by Lauren King, Court Watch Intern

Over the years the Yolo County DA’s office has had some fantastical press releases, misleading the public about the nature of their cases and their work. That tradition continues, as the DA’s office rather surprisingly chose to publicize the recent vehicle repossession case, despite the fact that, for all intents and purposes, they lost.

Nevertheless, the DA’s office release states, “Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Reisig announced today that a Yolo County Jury convicted Guillermo Bonilla 40, his wife Sandra Bonilla 34, and brother Juan Carlos Bonilla 36, of West Sacramento of Felony Vandalism on May 6, 2015.”

However, as we know, that is a large descent from what they were charged with originally. The family was charged with robbery, grand theft and vandalism, and Juan Carlos Bonilla was charged with battery.

The DA’s office dropped the charge of robbery prior to the trial. They also dropped the charge of grand theft against Sandra Bonilla during the trial. Juan Carlos was acquitted of the battery charge. And the jury hung on the grand theft and then on Monday the DA declined to refile.

So, essentially this case was a vandalism case – and the family is disputing the cost of the straps, which could potentially reduce the vandalism charges to misdemeanors.

Nevertheless the DA writes this up as though the jury convicted the family on all charges:

“This case originated in May of 2013 when Sandra Bonilla was delinquent on her payment on a leased Range Rover. The credit union that legally owned the truck issued a repossession order to a local repossession agent.

“The repossession agent went to the Bonilla’s home around 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning, secured the Range Rover on the back of his truck and knocked at the Bonilla’s door to allow her to remove her personal belongings prior to leaving with the Range Rover. Video taken by a camera in the truck of the repossession agent showed that after the Bonilla’s initial attempt to have the repossession agent release the Range Rover was unsuccessful, Sandra Bonilla, her husband and brother took matters into their own hands.

“The three Bonilla’s worked together to cut the straps off the Range Rover that held it onto the repossession truck, and forcibly removed the Range Rover from the repossession truck causing thousands of dollars of damage to the repossession truck and the Range Rover. The video also showed Juan Carlos Bonilla placing the repossession agent in a head lock and tossing him away from the truck.

“During trial, the jury heard a key piece of evidence provided by a witness who spoke to Sandra Bonilla after the incident. The witness told the jury how Bonilla described the actions of the repossession agent. However, video the jury watched in court directly contradicted how she claimed the incident occurred.”

The video does not clearly show most of that. The jury only had the evidence to convict the family on damage to the straps.

The statement about the head lock and about tossing the repo man away from the truck – in particular – is a gross distortion. The video shows Guillermo Bonilla down at the tire when the repossession agent interceded and appeared to make some sort of contact – the Bonillas told the Vanguard he actually grabbed Guillermo around the mouth.

At that point, Juan Carlos Bonilla pulled the repossession agent off his brother and then immediately released him. There is no “tossing him away from the truck.” The jury either decided that the action was self-defense or so minimal as to not constitute battery.

The DA, of course, omits testimony from Officer Steve Godden, who admitted that the repossession agent unnecessarily escalated the situation. When the agent arrived, he reportedly refused to provide the Bonillas with identification or any paperwork. His vehicle had no markings. He opted to confront the Bonillas rather than call the police and have the police handle the matter.

The jury hung on the grand theft charge, which is the accusation that the family took the repossession agent’s dollies. The raid on the home did not turn up the dollies several months later. There is no evidence that the family took the dollies, and it was not captured on the video. So it was impossible for the jury to reach a verdict there, and the DA evidently believed it would be hard to get a conviction on those charges – and declined to refile.

The issue we take, however, is that “District Attorney Jeff Reisig emphasized the great work done by the West Sacramento Police Department, including lead Detective Ken Fellows.”

It is hard to defend the actions of Ken Fellows in this instance (or, for that matter, in several other  instances that we have covered over the years).

During Guillermo’s testimony on Monday, he described the manner in which Det. Fellows entered his home. He said they busted the front door and, although the defendant had already put his hands on his head while on his knees, the officer continued to shove his own knee into the back of Bonilla, forcibly holding him down.

Mr. Bonilla stated that he “heard Fellows tell other officers to take these douche bags away.”

We also heard testimony from a young Hispanic man, who told how the detective threatened to deport him if he were hiding Bonilla. As the Vanguard reporter noted, “Mario Miranda had no idea what he was talking about and his testimony couldn’t have been more honest and believable.”

Detective Fellows ignored Ms. Bonilla’s stated request that she did not want to talk with him and her demand for an attorney. Detective Fellows was confronted on the stand for threatening to take away the Bonillas’ child if they did not return the dollies.

The biggest problem is he arranged a SWAT team to search their home without a search warrant. They busted down the door, but they only had an arrest warrant. The defense attorney argued that the police overstepped the authority of the arrest warrant and used it to conduct a general search rather than an arrest.

Detective Fellows even went to their place of work and threatened to have them deported because he believed they were hiding drugs. Ultimately, they did not find the drugs or evidence of other crimes they expected.

Most importantly, they also never found the dollies and there is no witness who ever saw the Bonillas take them.

So what exactly is the DA’s office praising Ken Fellows for doing? He did an inadequate investigation – far too late to recover the dollies if they were ever stolen – and he appears to have been alleging that Mr. Bonilla was running drugs, except he never found any evidence to support it.

Moreover, he conducted himself in an unprofessional manner, making unwarranted threats to several people.

In the end both the conduct of Mr. Fellows and the repossession agent made it very easy for the jury to find reasonable doubt and, ultimately, a case that was charged as robbery and grand theft could very well end up as a misdemeanor vandalism case – not exactly the stuff that press releases are made of, unless of course you’re the Yolo County DA’s office.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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15 thoughts on “Commentary: Another Fantastical DA Press Release in the Bonilla Case”

  1. sisterhood

    Cash for convictions, promotions for convictions. Don’t worry if the person is guilty or innocent or if it should be a misdemeanor. just go for the felony.

    How do you sleep at night, if you work as a prosecutor?

  2. zaqzaq


    Is it possible to find out if there were any plea bargain offers made by either side?  Many articles that I have read over the years indicate that the vast majority of criminal cases conclude with plea agreements.  It would be interesting to find out what the proposed plea bargains were before the jury trials in order to see how well the attorneys on both sides are evaluating their cases.  You cover a number of cases in Yolo county and it would be interesting to see what negotiations occurred prior to the jury trials.  It would provide some really interesting insight into the thought process of the different attorneys.  Is this something that you could do when covering future criminal cases?  It might provide some insight into which cases use up the communities resources in a jury trial.  I have to believe that trials are expensive and use up many resources.  How many citizens are impacted when called for jury duty on each case.  My spouse and I hate getting a jury summons because it limits our ability to make business appointments for the week of the summons.  We know that at a minimum one whole day is shot when we have to go to Woodland.  I understand that jury duty is a right and obligation of citizenship but it comes at an economic cost for the community beyond the salaries of the public servants that work in the courthouse.  Including the negotiations information in the articles in the future would be interesting.  For example in this case if the DA offered either a misdemeanor vandalism with probation or felony vandalism and grand theft with state prison time would give insight in the DA’s true belief in the strength of the case.  The same could be said for the defendants.   Were they willing to admit any crimes or did they believe that they were completely innocent.  Getting this information on each case that you cover would be really interesting and would explain how our resources are being used.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      I think that’s an interesting point. My experience is that getting that information is inconsistent at best. Generally speaking while I have not done a systematic examination, I have often asked the question – was there an offer and what was it. For instance, the lady who was acquitted of the burglary that we covered a few weeks ago, told me the offer was two years prison with a strike. She said had she been offered something like accessory after the fact, she would have taken it.

      What I find are as follows: (1) No offer. (2) Offer that was too high to take. (3) More generous offers as the trial approaches. (4) Reasonable offer but felt they were innocent. (5) Offer taken.

      Remember 95% of the offers are eventually taken as most cases plead out. However, often they fall under (3) where the offers improve until the point at which they can take it.

      For what it’s worth this case had a (4) offer – it was a reasonable offer but the defendants believed they were not guilty of that.

      1. sisterhood

        My personal experience =#4 and #5, 6 months county jail plea vs. jury trial & possible 7 years state prison.  My family member pled so he could spend time with his children. The D.A. brought adult pornography up and they were going to use that at his trial, which we were warned, would predjudice the Solano Co. jury, who are usually fairly conservative re: adult legal porn….

        He was able to get his record expunged, and released from probation 3 years early, but the sex offender registry will haunt him the rest of his life. When he pled, he was advised cases like his would be zip code only. He did start out t zip code only. Then the laws were changed and they did away w/ zip code only & placed him at the next lowest level, which he never agreed to.

        Plea bargains are agonizing when someone is innocent.

        1. hpierce

          Sisterhood… there can be no “ex post facto” laws.  Even on the ‘registry’.  Someone needs a lawyer.  The person you refer to, at first blush, cannot be forced into higher reporting levels.  If they eliminated that person’s ‘level’, would appear they ‘get a pass’.  But I’m not a lawyer.

      2. zaqzaq

        So it looks like the DDA had a pretty good idea concerning what the appropriate resolution was and the jury agreed with the DDA’s assessment.   Was the felony vandalism worse than the offer from the view of the defendants?  Antoinnette indicates below that the offer was a disturbing the peace.  Sounds like it was a misdemeanor so it was a worse outcome for the defendant.  If that is true then the defendants would have been in a better place had they taken the offer instead of paying an attorney for a worse result.  Am I getting this right?  Interesting.

  3. Davis Progressive

    the jury is the finder of fact and the jury disagreed with the da’s conclusion almost across the board.  however, the da stays with their conclusion and the local media dutifully report it without even bothering to check it out for themselves.

    they don’t get it:

    1. sisterhood

      Davis EmptyPrize- arrested? Page three. Not guilty? Not newsworthy. They just print law enforcement’s press release. When I called the editor to complain, she hung up on me.

    2. Fight Against Injustice

      I agree with DP. How can a news source continue to print the DAs press releases without checking them for accuracy. This is not the first time this has been brought to the public’s attention. The DA’s inaccurate press release 6 years ago is what made David start the Judicial Watch. I have seen this issue come up several other times since.

  4. Antoinnette



    They were offered a plea by Palombo, One thousand dollars for each to pay for the dollies and a Disturbing the peace.


    They refused so it went to trial.


    If you read my latest piece, they had an eye witness, the tow truck driver took dollies but the DA. Wouldn’t allow him to testify due to his criminal record.


    See my article:

    1. zaqzaq

      I read your last article.  How does one attorney stop another attorney from presenting an eyewitness at a trial?  That does not make sense.  Isn’t that why we have trials?  I am assuming that a judge would decide these issues and a good judge would allow eyewitness testimony.  I did not realize that a person’s criminal convictions could disqualify them as a eyewitness in a trial.  I would understand how a person’s criminal history could prevent them from serving as a juror or voting.  The explanation does not sound plausible.  Some piece of information must be missing.

  5. Napoleon Pig IV

    It’s no surprise that the minions of the Porcine Pinnacle propagate propaganda to justify their power-mongering idiocy. It’s a shame that the empty-prize is nothing but a shill for the powerful. So much for the First Amendment in our little barnyard, present blog excepted, of course. Oink!

  6. Tia Will


    How does one attorney stop another attorney from presenting an eyewitness at a trial?”

    I did not interpret this to mean that the prosecuting attorney literally stopped the defense from calling this eyewitness, but rather presented an objection that the judge honored in not allowing a witnesses’ testimony to be heard. My understanding is that it is quite common for testimony to be excluded based on a judges interpretation of the situation. Judges, unfortunately like every other human being, are subject to bias and to error. This does not seem at all exceptional to me.

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