Murder Trial Begins in Yolo County

By Carla Arango

On the morning of February 8, 2016, in the case of the People v. Lance Richard Ornellas-Castro, the prosecution and defense provided opening statements, marking the beginning of the trial. Mr. Ornellas-Castro is charged with murder, attempted second degree robbery, and conspiracy to commit a felony.

On December 11, 2015, Andrew Phaouthoum died from a single gunshot wound to the head after Ornellas-Castro allegedly shot him from the back seat of Jorge Garcia’s minivan. Mr. Garcia, the previous co-defendant, accepted a plea agreement in the case.

“I need a come up n—-, got anything we can hit?”

“We can hit the one we want with the van”

“If there’s no evidence, there’s no crime”

Those were some of the text messages Chief Assistant Deputy District Attorney Melinda Aiello read to the jury as she began her opening statement.

Ms. Aiello explained that the text messages were exchanged between the defendant, Mr. Ornellas-Castro, and Mr. Garcia in November 2015, just a few weeks before Andrew Phaouthoum went missing and was later found dead on December 12, 2015. Aiello proceeded to play a recording of Ornellas-Castro talking about the shooting.

In the recording Ornellas-Castro states he and Garcia had pulled over somewhere (attempting to get rid of the body), when he saw Phaouthoum move so he shot him a second time. However, there is no evidence of a second injury to the victim.

According to Ms. Aiello, Ornellas-Castro and Garcia met about three years ago when they worked together at a Taco Bell in Rio Vista.

A week before the incident Garcia and his friend “R” went to the house of another person, “W,” trying to buy marijuana from him. W didn’t have any, but he set them up with Phaouthoum. Phaouthoum sold Garcia marijuana and they exchanged numbers for future business arrangements. That was the first time they met.

On December 11, 2015, Garcia wanted to buy more marijuana, and Ornellas-Castro suggested they keep the weed and the money and rob the victim, Aiello said. That same day, Andrew Phaouthoum met them at a Bel Air market in Sacramento.

Phaouthoum arrived at the Bel Air parking lot with his younger brother, Mitchell Phaouthoum, who went inside the store while his brother waited for Ornellas-Castro and Garcia. When Mitchell went back outside looking for his brother, he was nowhere to be found.

Mitchell went through Andrew’s phone and found the last contact was with a man by the name of Jorge, Ms. Aiello said. A search warrant for Garcia’s house was issued and police found marijuana and a new cell phone box and receipt dated December 12, 2015. Inside the minivan were blood drops and what looked like an attempt to clean up the minivan, Aiello said.

“No evidence, no crime,” Aiello said, quoting Ornellas-Castro’s text message.

Police also found a work I.D. The name on the I.D. card was Lance Ornellas-Castro. A search warrant was executed for Ornellas-Castro’s home, where they found a receipt for a five-shot revolver purchased in October 2015.

Aiello said Ornellas-Castro downplayed knowing Garcia, but admitted to being with him on December 11, 2015. Ornellas-Castro also said he always carries a five-shot revolver with him, according to Aiello.

Ornellas-Castro allegedly said there was a dispute over the amount of the marijuana, then he saw Mr. Phaouthoum messing with his pocket, which caused him to fear for his life and so he shot Mr. Phaouthoum. Ornellas-Castro and Garcia dragged the body and dumped it in a slough.

Aiello said Ornellas-Castro threw the gun away because, according to him, he was afraid of what he would do with it.

Aiello concluded her opening statement by telling the jury they will hear from Jorge Garcia and how he was desperate to get out of the consequences he faced. “You will apply the law according to the evidence and I’m confident you will find the defendant guilty.”

The defense then provided their opening statement. “This is a terribly, terribly sad case,” Deputy Public Defender Dan Hutchinson said.

“There is no dispute that Lance Ornellas-Castro fired a shot, but it wasn’t during a robbery. Although Mr. Ornellas-Castro took a life, it wasn’t a murder,” Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson told the jury that Ornellas-Castro honestly thought Phaouthoum had a gun and he instinctively shot him.

“Our reactions are shaped by our experiences,” Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson told the story of how 18-year-old Ornellas-Castro enrolled in the U.S. Marine Corps. as a Combat Engineer, the most dangerous position there, Hutchinson said. On January 13, 2011, during his first combat patrol Ornellas-Castro witnessed the death of his best friend from an IED explosion. The following week he witnessed two more explosions that killed two people.

Hutchinson told the jury they will be seeing text messages, but those text messages were never acted on, they were just talk.

Hutchinson said there was no discussion of the defendant and Garcia robbing anyone and that all the text messages ended on November 20, 2015. Garcia didn’t meet Phaouthoum until November 30, 2015.

Hutchinson also said the victim was not some random kid, this was a person associated with drug dealing. He said Phaouthoum and Garcia had made a deal, half a pound of marijuana for $500.

When they met up, Phaouthoum only offered them six ounces, Garcia argued that wasn’t the correct amount, but Phaouthoum disagreed, Hutchinson said.

Ornellas-Castro allegedly said “give us our f—ing money and we’ll go.” Phaouthoum looked toward Ornellas-Castro and reached for his pocket, and that’s when the defendant shot the victim.

When Phaouthoum’s body was found, he still had the money in his pocket. “This was no robbery,” Hutchinson said.

Ornellas-Castro was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) by a Stanford therapist while he was in custody. Ornellas-Castro’s PTSD is not an excuse, but rather an explanation for his behavior, Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson told the jury that Garcia wanted to give a statement ever since the moment he was arrested. Garcia’s previous statement did not include a robbery, so the district attorney didn’t make a deal.

“[Eventually] Garcia cuts a deal to tell a lie that he knows doesn’t happen, but his life depends on it,” Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson warned the jury that Garcia’s statement is full of inconsistencies. “You’re going to hear a lot of information, wait until you hear everything. You will see two facts, this was never an attempted robbery or a robbery. Based on those facts alone, he is not guilty of murder,” Hutchinson said.

Mitchell Phaouthoum, Andrew’s brother, and Alexander Wagstaff, a patrol officer at the Sacramento Police Department, were the first two witnesses called by the prosecution.

The third witness, Deputy Harball from the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office, first took the stand before the trial broke for lunch.

Jury Trial Resumes for Suspected Murder Case

By Setarah Jahid

On the afternoon of February 8, 2017, a murder case reconvened with the prosecution calling witnesses to the stand. The body of Andrew Phaouthoum, the victim, was found near an embankment in Sacramento on December 12, 2015.  The victim’s family was present, sitting in the court room, with a tissue box at arm’s length.

Deputy District Attorney Matt De Moura recalled the People’s witness from the morning session, Deputy Harball, to finish direct examination. Mr. De Moura resumed his line of questioning by showing Exhibits 1-3 to the court, which were maps of the area where the body of the victim, Andrew Phaouthoum, was found. Harball recounted the crime scene. There were two puddles of blood, 12 inches in diameter, found 25-30 feet away from the body. During cross-examination, Deputy Public Defender Dan Hutchinson had no questions for Deputy Harball.

The second witness of the day was “CT,” 23, from South Sacramento. His best friend of six years, meeting in college, was the victim. De Moura asked if CT had ever met Jorge Garcia, to which his response was, “Yes. I met him the day before Andrew went missing.”

According to CT, when he realized that Mr. Phaoutoum was missing, he tied it to Garcia. A week prior to Andrew going missing, he and CT met Jorge Garcia and a girl named “R” at the house of CT’s friend, “W.” CT and Andrew were playing video games and smoking weed. CT shared that Garcia had asked where the good weed was, and Andrew, as a friendly gesture, told Garcia that he could provide him with some. A week later, after Andrew went missing, CT found out that the last person Andrew called was Garcia.

During cross-examination, Mr. Hutchinson asked CT about text conversations from W’s cellphone. One text message read, “There are 20 mu—s looking for this guy.” Hutchinson proceeded to ask CT if he knew who those 20 people might possibly be. “I don’t know,” responded CT.

Mr. Hutchinson ended his cross-examination by asking if there was anything else besides a phone call that proved Jorge Garcia was responsible for Andrew going missing.

The next witness, Nancy Stone, Deputy Coroner at the Yolo County Sheriff’s Office, gave testimony on her preliminary examination of Andrew Phaouthoum’s body. She noted that a gunshot wound to the left of Andrew’s temple is what killed him. She also stated that when Andrew was found, the decomposition process had not yet begun – meaning that he had died fairly recently to the finding of the body.

The final witness, Sergeant Samuel Machado of the Yolo County Sheriff’s Office gave testimony, similar to that of prior witnesses, describing the crime scene and the victim’s body.

About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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