COURT WATCH: Witnesses ‘Not Sure’ about Testifying Truthfully in Gonzalez Murder Trial

By Kaveh Nasseri, Frances Eusebio and Madison Whittemore

WOODLAND, CA – New witnesses testified in the jury retrial of Justin Gonzalez here Tuesday in Yolo County Superior Court, and one—Raquel Ponce, who had allegedly seen the murder Gonzalez is accused of—initially maintained she could not identify the accused in court.

However, after the court returned from a break, Ponce was able to identify Gonzalez.

In 2018, Gonzalez and Alexis Velasquez were convicted for the 2016 murder of Ronald Antonio, with Gonzalez receiving a second-degree murder conviction for allegedly holding Antonio, and Velasquez receiving a first-degree conviction for stabbing him.

The Gonzalez conviction was recently overturned, and he is now being retried. The prosecution is led by Deputy District Attorney (DDA) Robin Johnson, with Deputy Public Defender (DPD) Ron Johnson representing the accused.

Two witnesses were briefly heard before Ponce took the stand. Antonio’s sister testified that, at the time of his death, Antonio lived in the same trailer home that she had grown up in, at the Casa Del Sol mobile home park on East Street in Woodland.

The next testimony came from Woodland Police Officer John Riley, who had found Alexis Velasquez in Unit 77 of Casa Del Sol shortly after the murder. He testified he had seen fellow police officers take Gonzalez out of another room in the unit, and he identified Gonzalez in court.

Then came the witness testimony of Ponce, who was assisted by a Spanish language interpreter. Ponce had been a resident of Casa Del Sol at the time of the murder. According to her testimony, she had been in her trailer when she heard two women screaming at each other on the day of the crime.

“They were shouting in English, saying, ‘Nina, don’t go out there,’” said Ponce. She then testified she saw two men walking and later running behind her, one with a knife in his hand.

“Do you recall anything about the individual with the knife in his hand?” asked DDA Johnson. “Yes,” said Ponce, adding both of the men were young and wore white shirts, while the individual with the knife had longer hair.

Ponce noted she had seen her neighbors walking. “A Mexican man, I don’t remember his name, and the person that they killed,” Ponce said.

“At some point an individual was killed that evening, correct?” asked DDA Johnson. “Yes,” replied Ponce. “Did you know that person?” asked DDA Johnson. “Yes, as my neighbor,” said Ponce. DDA Johnson then showed Ponce a photograph of the neighbor in question and asked her if she could identify him, which she did. When asked if she knew his name, Ponce said it was Antony, referring to a nickname for Ronald Antonio.

“Did you ever see the two men running catch up to your neighbor?” asked DDA Johnson. “Yes,” replied Ponce. “When you saw the men catch up to your neighbor, could you see what happened?” DDA Johnson asked, following up on her initial question. “Yes,” said Ponce.

She testified that one of the two grabbed the victim from behind, while the one with the knife proceeded to stab him.

“Have you seen either of those two men in the trailer park before?” asked DDA Johnson. Ponce replied that she had. She also testified that she had called 911 and attempted to give Antonio first aid after the stabbing.

DDA Johnson then asked Ponce if she could identify the man in court who had grabbed Antonio from behind. Ponce had an emotional reaction to the question and was initially unable to answer.

“Give her a moment,” said Judge Samuel McAdam. After a few minutes of unresponsiveness, the session went on break, and Ponce went into a room with an investigator. When the trial resumed, Ponce was able to identify Gonzalez as the man in question.

DDA Johnson asked if Ponce had been promised anything in exchange for testifying in a certain manner. “No,” said Ponce.

In his cross-examination, DPD Johnson asked Ponce to provide more information about where exactly she was when she witnessed the crime. Ponce replied she had been on the corner of Los Portales and Fiesta Way. DPD Johnson also asked Ponce if the men she saw had been running together. Ponce said that they were separated when running but were “back together” by the time they reached Antonio.

“Where was Antonio when he was grabbed?” asked DPD Johnson. “Outside of his house,” responded Ponce, adding, “I don’t remember the trailer number, but he was outside his house.” Crucially, Ponce also testified that Gonzalez was the one who grabbed the victim.

According to Ponce, she later found Antonio on the steps of the trailer home and dialed 911 two times before hanging up, instead proceeding to chase two men who were running through Casa Del Sol.

“I called and then hung up and then called and then hung up,” Ponce conceded, explaining how she believed chasing the men would help Antonio more than calling 911.

“I am watching a person die there’s many reasons why I didn’t react,” Ponce later admitted after DPD Johnson persistently questioned her about why she didn’t follow through with the 911 calls.

DPD Johnson also asked Ponce about the aid she provided Antonio at the time. Ponce noted  Antonio was stabbed at his upper side but later changed the testimony, noting, “I never said he was stabbed in the chest.” Ponce also noted that there was blood everywhere, but following CPR she had “little blood” on her hands, with the majority of blood on her pants

Ponce was also questioned on her knowledge of the U Visa, a non-immigrant status for victims of certain crimes who suffer from physical or mental abuse who could serve as valuable in the investigation of a particular crime. DPD Johnson noted “aside from the right to work in the country, the visa would give her (Ponce) the right to live in the country as well.”

Ponce was questioned on her legal status, to which she stated she was not legally allowed to work in the country at the time. She sent in a U Visa application in 2017, and it was not denied in its processing. Ponce noted the U Visa was “not important” for her because she has been living and working and the country “fine” and she also declared that she has not received anything from it.

DPD Johnson noted Ponce’s U Visa was signed off by the District Attorney’s office on Nov. 23, 2016, to which Ponce agreed but does not remember the date, adding the crime happened years ago, and it was a process that she had to work through.

“All of this I wanted to erase from my brain and now it’s all reopening and it’s not easy to be asked exact dates, and not any person would want to get involved in something like that,” Ponce stated.

In a redirect by DDA Robin Johnson, Ponce was asked what kind of medical training she had at the time of the crime. Ponce noted how she took a course in Guadalajara under the Green Cross for first aid which included CPR, diabetes and high blood pressure. Ponce also confirmed that the course taught her the procedures to undergo for situations such as the crime in question.

Ponce was further questioned by the DDA as to why she took a picture of Antonio. She noted that she believed it would “help what was happening there because the people that murdered him ran.”

The next witness called to the stand was Marco Aguinigam, who was also a resident of Casa Del Sol during Antonio’s stabbing. According to Aguiniga’s prior testimony for the case, he stated he was walking his dog the night of Aug. 30 when he encountered Gonzalez and Velazquez.

During the beginning of his testimony Aguiniga admitted spending time in jail for prior felonies, when he was affiliated with the Northern California gang, Norteño. However, Aguiniga later attempted to retract his prior gang affiliation, explaining that “I didn’t say I was involved in a gang in prison, don’t put words into my mouth.”

Upon further questioning by DDA Robin Johnson, Aguiniga admitted that he was “not sure” if he was telling the truth in his prior testimony, noting that he “smoked a lot of weed” at the time.

Following the statement about weed, Aguiniga only answered questions with “I don’t know…I don’t recall…I don’t remember.”

The last witness of the day called to the stand by DDA Johnson was Cynthia Tello. Also a resident of Casa Del Sol in 2016, Tello lived with her children and her cousin during the time of the murder. Tello also noted that her cousin was dating Gonzalez at the time, and Gonzalez was temporarily living with them in the trailer.

However, after admitting the relationship that Gonzalez had with her cousin, Tello stated she was very drunk on the night of Aug. 30, and was “so intoxicated that she passed out.”

Despite DDA Johnson reminding her that she provided a great deal of detail about the night of Aug. 30 in her past testimony, Tello answered most remaining questions from DDA Johnson and DPD Johnson with “I don’t remember.”

It was clear at this point in the trial that both DDA Johnson and DPD Johnson were frustrated at the differences between the witness’s past testimonies compared to present testimony, which Judge McAdam also recognized.

“Based on the testimony the court heard I found that their ‘do not recall’ answers were contrived and that they were stonewalling, and so impeachment will be allowed across the board as to those two witnesses,” Judge McAdam concluded outside the presence of the jury, giving both the DPD and DDA the opportunity to test the credibility of the last two witnesses.

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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