By Alexander Ramirez
MERCED, CA – A trial involving a homicide investigation that started seven years ago is ongoing as multiple officers and a doctor were called to testify in Merced County Superior Court in front of Judge Steven Slocum Wednesday, .
In 2014, a homicide investigation was conducted when the remains of two burned bodies were found in a torched car in an orchard on the outskirts of Merced.
After confirming the area in which the car with the bodies was located and the almond orchard it was found in, the officer who responded to the scene described in court Wednesday the burned-out shell of the vehicle to the jury, including the license plate and interior that was destroyed.
A DMV report of the license plate was presented to the court and its significance was explained by the officer. With the report, they could contact the owner of the vehicle and get more information on whether they knew where the vehicle was.
Among the exhibits presented to the jury were pictures showing the destroyed interior and the burned bodies.
Other than describing the car, the officer said he found three different brands of .45 caliber shell casings, a Federal shell casing, a Winchester shell casing, tire tracks, shoe impressions, and a dried puddle of blood as seen in the exhibits provided to the court in the form of pictures and video.
Although the officers collected these bullet casings, other than investigating the caliber of the gun that the casings were shot from, major crime detectives instead eventually sent the casings to the Dept. of Justice for processing.
After following the tire impressions, the officer described a secondary crime scene around 350 feet away from the primary crime scene where a pair of flip-flops, a stained wooden bat, a stainless knife, a plastic bag, another plastic bag with the smell of diesel, more shoe impressions, and another dried pool of blood with drag marks leading to or coming from was found.
There were a number of details clarified in the defense’s cross-examination, including that the shoe impressions were not caused by the flip-flops found and the drag marks seemed to come from the area with the knife and bat to the location where the blood pool rested.
But the officer was unaware if there were drag marks leading to the car. Nor did it look like there were bullet holes in the car, but an in-depth investigation was not conducted by the officer in court at the time.
Another officer (last name of Macis, first name was unintelligible on Zoom), described a similar scene as the last testimony.
“When I first arrived, I’d seen the vehicle off Monte Vista and believe it was a few rows between the orchards. A burnt vehicle, a badly burnt vehicle, and what would appear to be the remains of two badly burnt bodies in the vehicle,” he said.
A coroner that was involved in this case was called to the stand and questioned next, noting since fingerprints were unable to be obtained from the bodies, dental records were the next step for the autopsy and investigation as a whole, but even this only applied to one of the bodies.
Other than explaining the idea of a chain-of-custody that keeps track of evidence as it is transported and investigated by different bodies, the coroner’s time on the stand was short.
Cross-examination confirmed the material the bodies were covered in and the details of the DNA submission form signed by the coroner, but this questioning was also short.
Two more testimonies were received from two different people involved in transporting evidence to DOJ.
The idea of chain-of-custody was also explained again as the witnesses noted the extensive process to identify, confirm and transport evidence.
As for what deliveries were made for this investigation, it included two pistols, a baseball bat, a steel knife, plastic bags, and beer cans being checked for DNA and sent to DOJ Ripon and DOJ Fresno on July 10, 2015.
Some of the more graphic exhibits were shown to the court when the forensic pathologist of the Sheriff’s Office of Merced County provided testimony about the autopsy of the bodies of the case.
After removing the bodies from the car, the doctor explained having to go through the burned car by hand to look for pieces of bone left behind.
“So you can imagine it’s hard to see and distinguish what’s char and soot and non-human from human in the picture, it’s just as hard when you’re standing there. So we went very carefully,” he explained as the exhibit was shown to the court.
As for the bodies, copper-colored jacketing material from a large caliber bullet was found in the back of the skull, charred but intact. A .45 caliber is in the large-caliber group.
There was also a gunshot hole in the shoulder blade, with similar copper-colored jacketing material as what was found in the skull of the victim.
Despite the burning, a gunshot wound was listed as the cause of death by the doctor, who explained, “(The injuries) all appear to be post-mortem…Some of the tissues that remain, you can tell that they had injuries…Burned bones don’t break the same as living bone.”
Exhibits depicting the charred remains of the bodies taken at the time of the autopsy were shown to the doctor and the court, including a picture of the actual shoulder blade with the gunshot hole being compared to an artificial shoulder blade.
In an exhibit presented to the court, on a bag carrying one of the charred bodies, “Doe #2” could be seen written.
Although the “internal organs were largely burned away,” since a skull was present for one of the bodies, the doctor was able to find extensive injuries to the head before being burned. After removing the charred material from the skull, a relatively clear picture of a skull with cracks along the cheeks was able to be presented as an exhibit to the court.
“So the right side of the face, both orbits, both cheeks, the nose, the maxilla, the mandible…are all fractured and they were fractured prior to the fire.”
Two round impact areas were found by the left cheek and the nose area, but although he believed a bat or hammer can cause damage of this nature, the fractures couldn’t tell him what weapon exactly caused these fractures.
There was also an incision to the trachea and larynx, or throat, believed to be caused by a knife wound. Blunt trauma and incision were listed as other causes of death.
After a quick cross-examination from the defense clarified some details of the blunt trauma seen on the skull, the doctor was excused from testimony and the afternoon session of this case concluded.
The trial is ongoing.