It was October, last fall, when I received my first contact from the Bonilla family. I quickly reached out to their private counsel, Attorney Anthony Palik, whom I have known since the 2010 Galvan brothers trials. This case has a lot of interesting elements – the fact that they were accused of robbery, battery, and grand theft, based on a confrontation in which the bank had made errors.
There was the overly-aggressive play by the repossession agent (whom we have generously avoided naming throughout the trial coverage) and a potentially illegal no-warrant raid on the family home by Detective Ken Fellows (who has a checkered history) and the police.
Much has been made of the DA’s attempts to subpoena me and put me on the stand. Deputy DA Michael Favero is a young attorney, and perhaps that explains a bit of his aggressiveness towards me and others in this case. Vanguard Court Watch interns have described the Deputy DA as being very aggressive and condescending towards several the witnesses, particularly Guillermo Bonilla, during cross-examination.
When I arrived at court, Mr. Favero greeted me on Monday but was immediately surprised to see that I had counsel. It is a good thing I did. We thought we could stipulate that I wrote the entire article, as it laid the foundation the DA would need to bring in prior inconsistent statements as a means to discredit the defendants. However, when Mr. Favero initially told Vanguard Attorney Josh Kaizuka that he wanted to ask questions beyond that limited scope, we took the matter to Judge Reed.
Ryan Couzens, over whom we have spilled much ink throughout the years, was brought in to handle the Media Shield Law Arguments. Originally, he argued that the Vanguard is not a real media source and should not qualify. Judge Reed immediately shut that down, basically stating, let’s assume they are. He challenged Mr. Couzens to show him direct case law indicating otherwise. With that issue off the table, Mr. Couzens was actually in agreement that a reporter could only be compelled to affirm that they wrote the article and authenticate the quotes.
Honestly, it was a waste of everyone’s time, as the two statements that got read into the record were used for impeachment purposes, but frankly I think one of the statements was misread by the DA and actually benefited the defense.
“Guillermo Bonilla attempted to remove the partially attached straps, when the agent reached around his face and grabbed his mouth with both hands, causing him to bleed. It was at this point that Juan Bonilla pulled the agent off his brother.”
If you watch the video, that explanation is plausible. You can see Guillermo Bonilla fiddling with the straps, the agent tried to intervene and may well have made contact with Guillermo and then Juan Carlos definitely pulled the agent off his brother for a millisecond – that was the basis of the battery charge for which Juan Carlos would rightly be acquitted.
From the video it is not clear that it is self-defense, but it’s such minimal contact that one has to wonder, even if there were a conviction, whether the judge wouldn’t reduce it to a misdemeanor.
Mr. Favero pleaded with the jury to ignore the conduct of both the agent and the police officers – hence his Baltimore reference, but I think their conduct was difficult to ignore and, as Officer Godden testified, it escalated things beyond where they needed to go.
Officer Godden admitted that the repossession agent unnecessarily escalated the situation. When he arrived, he reportedly refused to provide the Bonillas with identification or the paperwork. His vehicle had no markings. He opted to confront the Bonillas rather than call the police and have the police handle the matter.
As noted, the video may have been ambiguous about the brief physical confrontation, but the repossession agent did himself no favors when it came to light in the trial that there was a video recording in which he described the Bonillas as “looking like Mexican narcotraffickers.”
Those kinds of comments, which came out during a fiery cross-examination last week, really put the repossession agent’s actions in a very different light and probably tipped the jury’s assessment from seeing him as the victim to seeing him as the aggressor.
Equally, the conduct by Detective Fellows of the West Sacramento Police Department probably played into the jury’s assessment of the case. Detective Fellows ignored Ms. Bonilla’s stated request that she did not want to talk with him and her assertion for an attorney. Detective Fellows was confronted on the stand for threatening to take away the Bonilla’s 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 would argue 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. That became the basis for the hung jury on the grand theft – they never found the dollies, no one saw the Bonillas take them, and you cannot see them take the dollies on the video. Therefore, the prosecution never proved that there was a theft.
At the end of the day, this was an overreach by the DA’s office and an overreaction by Detective Fellows – and the conduct of the repossession agent should be scrutinized here. The DA’s office dropped the robbery charges before the trial began. They dropped grand theft charges against Sandra Bonilla prior to closing arguments.
The jury acquitted Juan Carlos Bonilla of the battery. They hung on the grand theft for the two brothers. And finally, they convicted the Bonillas of the only crime they really committed – cutting the straps. Mr. Palik disagrees on the value of those straps, but, given everything, this appeared to be a good resolution to a case that was overcharged from the start.
—David M. Greenwald reporting