By Nina Hall
WOODLAND – The only eyewitness to a homicide died in late July, but Yolo County Superior Court Judge David Reed overruled objections by Yolo County Chief Public Defender Tracie Olson at a preliminary hearing earlier this month and found that defendant Tuala Auimatagi—accused of committing two murders in August of 2019—must stand trial.
The first case was a drive-by shooting that resulted in the death of a 35-year-old man, and Auimatagi allegedly shot another man the following week in Richmond. Her co-defendant, Erica Martinez, is being charged as an accessory to murder in the second shooting.
The only eyewitness to the second homicide died in July, causing a legal argument about whether a deceased witness’s testimony should be allowed in a preliminary hearing.
Before day two of the preliminary hearing began, Olson argued that the witness’s testimony would qualify as inadmissible hearsay in an actual trial on the merits of the case. She argued that a preliminary hearing was to prevent unnecessary trials and if the evidence wouldn’t be admissible at trial, it should likewise not be used presently in determining whether this case should be tried.
Prosecutor Stephanie Novelli countered that a preliminary hearing is only to decide whether there is sufficient evidence to go to trial, not the guilt or innocence of the charge, and therefore the deceased witness’s testimony could be heard.
Judge Reed ultimately sided with the prosecution, noting that the statute does not require that a witness be present or alive at a preliminary hearing. Thus, the deceased witness’s testimony would go on to be heard.
Auimatagi’s first alleged victim was killed on Aug. 15, 2019, in what witnesses said was a drive-by shooting in West Sacramento. The nature of death was attributed to a single gunshot wound to the chest from what was most likely a rifle.
Street cameras had picked up a black BMW on the nearby roads around the time of the shooting. Police were also able to obtain footage from a nearby motel that showed Auimatagi as well as Martinez getting in and out of the same black BMW.
Detective Barrio of the West Sacramento Police Department appeared via Zoom to testify about said footage, and noted that both women were seen multiple times at the nearby motel entering and exiting different rooms, as well as loading bags into the BMW, one of which is suspected to have carried the gun, the others presumably carried narcotics. The motel in question has been suspected as a location with heavy drug activity, as testified to by other officers.
Following this shooting was another occurrence located in Richmond on Aug. 22.
Similar to the prior shooting, the victim was shot with a rifle. The only eyewitness at the Richmond location was the victim’s girlfriend, who is now deceased. Detective Chris Decious was one of the officers who testified about the deceased’s statement saying she had seen Auimatagi break into their home along with Martinez before the confrontation began that ultimately resulted in her boyfriend’s death. The deceased testified to seeing Auimatagi kill the victim.
The deceased witness told Detective Decious that Auimatagi had given a nine millimeter handgun to the victim during a car chase involving the police in San Francisco. After the chase the victim told Auimatagi that he had given the gun to a homeless person.
The victim later was seen still in possession of the handgun, as testified to by his girlfriend. Auimatagi returned to the home that night in hopes to find the handgun, which she had already sold and collected money for.
Both police departments became aware of the similarities in the two cases. It was decided that the shell casings and bullets from both shootings would be sent to a lab to determine if they had been fired from the same gun.
The prosecution brought in an expert in firearm analytics, Alex Taflya of the Sheriff’s Office in Forensics, to testify concerning his findings between the bullets found at Richmond and West Sacramento.
Taflya testified that it was possible to determine whether bullets had been shot from the same gun, “The initial procedure is to look at the evidence, and measure it to see if the caliber is the same. If it’s not, that is an automatic class elimination.” The bullets from the West Sacramento shooting and Richmond shooting were both determined to be .22 caliber.
Taflya stated, “Assuming there is no subclass, they were fired from the same firearm. The issue that I have is I could not evaluate the firearm.” Subclass, Taflya described, are marks that are imparted on a batch of firearms during the manufacturing process. A batch of firearms can be manufactured all with the same subclass if the rifling (spherical grooves) on a bullet is chipped.
Taflya estimated that subclasses would only occur on a subset of firearms produced, the quantity not amassing over one hundred thousand, but it is unclear how many firearms could be manufactured with the same subclass.
Based on this evidence, Judge Reed found sufficient evidence to place Auimatagi on trial for both killings, although admitting there was also sufficient evidence to place Martinez on trial for the charge of being an accessory to murder.
Neither defendant was granted supervised release; in fact, there was a no bail order. The trial will be set sometime in September or October.