MODESTO — A detective Wednesday testified that three attempts were made in September 2010 to collect rent from tenants at a west Modesto home before a confrontation between the landlords and a woman living in the duplex resulted in a fatal shooting.
What happened before the shooting is being used by prosecutors as evidence to prove a conspiracy by landlords to forcibly enter rental homes. The testimony is part of a preliminary hearing for Bennie Taylor and his father-in-law, James Abbey, who are accused of participating in that conspiracy.
The defendants are the husband and father of former Stanislaus County sheriff's Detective Kari Abbey, who is being prosecuted separately and awaiting trial on four felony charges.
The home on Donald Street was owned by James Abbey and his wife. His daughter, then a sheriff's detective, was the property manager.
Sheriff's Detective Frank Soria questioned Jose Flores, who was working for Kari Abbey. Flores communicated with Spanish-
speaking tenants, rented out some of the homes and made repairs.
Rita Elias had moved into the Donald Street home about a month before the shooting. Two men also lived there; it's unclear how long.
Flores told the detective that the tenants had submitted a rental application, but there was no rental agreement. Their agreement with the landlords was verbal only, according to Flores.
Soria testified that Flores went to the Donald Street home on Sept. 24, 2010, to communicate with Spanish-speaking tenants that they had to pay overdue rent or leave. Flores said he tried to collect the rent a few times before, including once earlier that day.
He told the detective that he, Kari Abbey and her father entered the home and encountered Elias.
An argument ensued between Kari Abbey and Elias. "Lots of name-calling and finger-pointing," Soria testified.
At one point, Kari Abbey punched Elias. Soria said the two women then were in a struggle on the ground before James Abbey broke up the fight. Kari Abbey grabbed Elias' backpack and threw it across the street, telling Elias she needed to get her stuff and leave.
Elias refused to leave, telling Abbey that she lived there. Soria testified that Elias continued to challenge Kari Abbey, telling her she knew where she lived. Another investigator has testified that Elias threatened to get gang members to retaliate against Kari Abbey.
Soria testified that Elias went inside the home and returned with what to Kari Abbey looked like a semiautomatic handgun. Then, Kari Abbey shot to death Elias, authorities have said.
Kari Abbey initially was charged with second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter in connection with the off-duty shooting. Elias, 31, had brandished a BB gun during the confrontation.
At the end of Abbey's 2011 preliminary hearing, Judge Ricardo Córdova dismissed the murder and manslaughter charges. However, the judge determined that there was enough evidence for Kari Abbey to stand trial on the other felony charges. She is accused of embezzling from the Sheriff's Department, cultivating marijuana, conspiracy to commit unlawful evictions and child endangerment.
Investigation reveals more
The charges against Taylor and James Abbey were the result of an investigation into the fatal shooting.
James Abbey told Soria that when they arrived at the Donald Street home, he turned off the power to the duplex apartment with the overdue rent. James Abbey told the detective the utilities were under his name.
Also on Wednesday, investigator Mike Hermosa concluded his testimony under cross-examination. He said he reviewed prior reported violence or threats involving the Abbeys and Taylor at their family's rental homes.
Hermosa, however, did not knock on every door to ask the tenants about their interactions with the landlords. He testified that he didn't want to scare away tenants by asking those questions, so he just focused on those homes with reported incidents.
"I gave them that courtesy," Hermosa said about the landlords. "I could've (knocked on every door). Based on the questions, I probably should have."
The investigator did submit written reports from tenants who didn't have any problems with their landlords.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2394.