In June of 2006, a jury convicted three men of the shooting death of Eric Folsom (age 17) and Robert Stepper (age 20). The jury chose life in prison rather death for Oscar Cervantes and Ernesto Arellano, with James Olague also facing life in prison.
But now, over ten years after those verdicts and 15 years after the October 31, 2002, killings, questions continue to emerge as to whether authorities have the right men.
Jennifer Justice (Jennifer Samson at the time of the trial) calls herself Robert Stepper’s sister; she was actually a close friend who took in the troubled youth and cared for him “as an older sister might.” She is convinced that the three men now serving time were wrongly convicted.
For her the official story doesn’t add up and is inconsistent with the facts that she is aware of. “I know too many things that would keep that story from making sense (or) even being able to be true the way it was presented.
“I specifically know that Robert never left the scene when he was talking to all the kids that night,” she said. “He never was led to the scene by Christina.” Christina Marten was a key witness for the prosecution who ended up backing out of an agreement to turn state’s evidence – she could have had time served but instead refused to roll and took a life sentence as well.
She added, “There are other things that don’t make sense in that story.”
She came to this conclusion almost from the start, after seeing the Grand Jury testimony (through transcripts), watching the trial, and seeing the case as presented by the police. She attempted to warn
the police and others that they were making a mistake, but to no avail.
“I tried to question the police all the time about the points that I knew were true and did not mesh with their story,” she said. When she tried to correct facts, “they dismissed them. They just didn’t pay any attention. They listened to what I had to say and acted like they felt bad that I was so upset. But they just listened to me, they never went any further with it.”
She was also never asked to testify.
She added, “I thought I could depend on the police just the same as everyone else” to get to the bottom of this story. “I thought that they were trying to do their job,” she said, and she added that she still does. “I just think that they had an agenda that they couldn’t let go of (it) to see the real picture.
“The simplest answer to who killed Robert was right in front of them the whole time,” she explained. “It was the story that we heard originally, that it was somebody from down south – meaning southern California – (who) had come to Woodland. It was basically just a random shooting – they went out looking for Busters [slang for Norteños].”
Robert Stepper wasn’t a current gang member, but he had past gang ties (although Ms. Justice wonders how much of a gang member he actually was). “At one point he was (affiliated with a gang), but when I met him, he wasn’t anymore,” she said. “He was trying to separate himself from that life and that’s why I was supporting him – I wanted him to be able to accomplish that.”
Mr. Stepper had a tough life. His father passed away when he was 13 years old. He had never known his mother – she left when he was just two. He didn’t have a close relationship with his stepmother either.
He got in trouble and ended up at the California Youth Authority camp. Just before his death, he had completed his GED.
Ms. Justice moved from Woodland down to southern California. “When I had to move from Woodland, I told him (to come with me),” she explained. He wanted to remove himself from the situation and the people he was associating with, “but it was real difficult.”
She said as soon as she got settled, “I’ll come get you and you can come down and start your life with me.”
She continued, “Two weeks before I was supposed to go get him, we had made plans. He called me and he said, can you come get me?” She responded that she couldn’t come right now, she had to work. She wanted to know if he was in trouble or if something happened. “He said no, he was just looking forward to starting his new life,” she said. She felt a little uneasy, but told him she would be there in two weeks to get him.
“That was the last time I ever talked to him,” she said.
The murder theory by prosecutors at the time was that Ernesto Arellano, a high-ranking Norteño gang member in Woodland, ordered the hit on Mr. Stepper for shortchanging him on drug sales.
Jennifer Justice questioned this. “(Robert) used to do methamphetamine when he was younger,” she said. “But he was absolutely against it when I met him and knew him. He had stopped a long time before I ever met him and he was adamantly against it.
“He (didn’t) do any kind of hard drugs that I’m aware of, at all,” she said. She said that he did smoke pot. But she said that he was accused of owing money for meth – not pot.
Jennifer Justice believes that ultimately the jury was confused because “they got so much information at trial – it was the longest trial in Yolo County history. It took six months.
“It was so confusing,” she said. “But I know there were two different stories that were told in that trial about who committed the murder. One was the story that Christina Marten told and the other was the story that Veronica Lugo told and the fact that the police actually put Veronica Lugo into protective custody is very compelling.
“I don’t think it was made clear to the jury that there were two different possible scenarios going on as to how these murders were committed and who did them,” she said.
At the same time, she believes that everyone involved was working within the knowledge that they had at the time.
She said, “I believe Oscar, Neto (Ernesto Arellano), James and all the rest of the Woodland group really didn’t know who killed Robert and Eric. They heard rumors, they probably even, at times, suspected each other.
“The cops were trying to catch a killer in a media-sensationalized case that the FBI had been involved with. Once they got a taste of that level of excitement, they couldn’t give it up. It isn’t really their job to decide if there is a case to try.
“They just report their findings. The D.A. had to maintain the story they presented to the Grand Jury,” she said. “Their testimony was manipulated to fit the storyline, psychologically and within a legal framework cleverly crafted by the D.A. and police.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting
Join us on January 24 as James Olague, one of the three convicted for these murders, will speak live from Corcoran Prison at Woodstock’s Pizza – more details here.