By Danielle Eden C. Silva
The preliminary hearing for Christian Rizo reached a conclusion, after a 15-month investigation and a redone prelim, revealing the identity of the driver who was killed.
On June 29, 2016, Arnulfo “Happy” Bermudez, 31, was found in the driver’s seat of a car crashed into a parked vehicle, deceased. Following the 15-month investigation, Woodland authorities arrested Christian Rizo, 19, on multiple charges, including homicide and attempted murder. As of the September 29, 2017, arraignment, Mr. Rizo plead not guilty to all of these charges.
Several witnesses had already testified when Deputy Public Defender Martha Sequeira and Judge Dan Maguire were switched off the case. Currently, no explanation stands for this exchange, but Attorney J. Toney now represents the defense and Judge Janene Beronio officiates. The prosecuting attorney remains as Deputy District Attorney Jay Linden. Due to the change in defense counsel, witnesses were required to re-testify, which lengthened the preliminary exam.
On the morning of November 16, 2017, Detective Dana Simpson of the Yolo County Gang Task Force took the stand first. Detective Simpson had been notified of the shooting at 1 am and arrived on the scene about an hour later. She shared that her associate, Woodland Police Officer Greg Elliott, had been informed of a vehicle that could be involved, but the occupants of the vehicle were considered uninvolved with the crime.
Her testimony also included a conversation with an individual who had been present in the car crash and attempted to identify the killer. The witness claimed that they had known said gang member for awhile and believed it was him. The name they provided was other than that of the defendant. In later interviews when the witness’ suggested suspect was proved to be uninvolved, that bystander did not further address that name.
Detective Simpson also mentioned a mother’s testimony. The mother had been resting when she saw Bermudez’s vehicle hit a fence. She called 911 and ran to the scene. The first bystander had been in the
car and instructed her to take out all drugs and pipes from the vehicle. That witness himself ran out of the car with a fake gun and hid it, not realizing it was fake.
He revealed to the mother that he wanted Mr. Bermudez to get a fair trial (apparently thinking the victim would live).
During her testimony, Det. Simpson included information on a surveillance video that revealed a man leaving from a car in that general area. She clarified the persons shown in the video were not clear to her but Woodland Officer Tim Keeney had studied it more clearly.
In the cross-examination, Mr. Toney asked Detective Simpson if the footage recorded the shooting, which she denied. Mr. Toney also asked for the motivations of the first bystander, who was interviewed four times, and how that person’s testimonies changed. The court denied further questions on motivations.
Following Detective Simpson, a young woman was brought to the stand. The young woman identified her vehicle, a charcoal gray 2003 Nissan Maxima with four doors and a sun roof. She claimed she often drove people around in her dark vehicle.
On the night of the murder, the young woman had been driving around with the defendant and a second person, with whom she was not familiar. They remained in a parking lot for awhile before getting into the car. The witness drove, but Mr. Rizo and the other man told her to pull over at the curb so they could “check somebody” – a term used to exchange a few words with someone.
She sat in the car and listened to music while the other two left the car. A resounding gunshot caused her gaze to shift to a side mirror. She claimed she had only seen the car crash as the two men returned to her car. She drove to her house then back to some apartments following the incident. At the time, she did not know of a weapon in her car until seeing it in the back seat after the incident.
“I didn’t think they were going to shoot at all,” the woman shared when asked by Mr. Linden about Mr. Rizo and his friend’s expressions after the incident.
Following this, the young woman revealed to the court that, as the driver, she was pleading to being an accessory to murder.
In the cross-examination, the young woman shared that she had moved out of state to distance herself but the shooting was part of her reason for leaving. When called for an interview, she believed it would be regarding an item stolen from one of her housemates.
The officials who detained her asked for her side of the story, noting that Mr. Rizo was a suspect in their investigation. Speculating she would be arrested after the interview, she worked out a plea bargain. The plea agreement, she specified, required her to say what she knows happened and then she would be placed on probation.
The young woman admitted she did not see who was holding the gun or who shot Mr. Bermudez. At the time, she didn’t realize how a weapon had been brought into the car until a video of someone putting it in revealed otherwise.
The day following the incident, the young woman realized someone died and, while she didn’t knowingly assist in the murder, she knew if she did not do the plea she would be charged with “first degree murder I did not do.”
The young woman wanted to get her mind off what happened at the time, but currently doesn’t recall all those moments. Someone told her not to talk about what happened. When she met Mr. Rizo following the murder, she expressed her regret and it was shared by one of the parties, “It did not mean to happen that way.”
Detective Tim Keeney of the Woodland Police Department was called next. He reviewed the footage more closely and noted a man wearing a skull cap, sandals, pants, and a gray shirt running to an apartment with no pursuers. He did notice a previous witness that had seen the shooting. He could not identify the formerly accused in the video.
Detective Pablo Gonzales of the Woodland Police also testified, having seen four sets of video himself. He noted the parking lot video where the young woman, Mr. Rizo, and a third man hung out. In the video, Det. Gonzales could identify Mr. Rizo and the third man. He did not see a firearm in the car.
An unnamed informant also provided information to Detective Gonzales. This informant stated the shotgun hit the victim in the face. They also noted Rizo’s son was in a car accident and this could be considered “karma.” This informant will appear during the trial but Mr. Toney was unable to understand the motivations behind these testimonies.
In closing, Mr. Linden also noted that Mr. Rizo was not allowed to own any firearms or weaponry as of January 4, due to his juvenile delinquency records.
Judge Beronio held Mr. Rizo to answer on all counts. The case will next appear in court on November 30, 2017, at 8:30 am in Department 9.