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