Jury to decide fate of man accused of killing girlfriend near Keyes

rahumada@modbee.comApril 23, 2014 

Robert Vanderheiden

STANISLAUS CO. SHERIFF'S DEPT.

A prosecutor on Wednesday told jurors that they can rely only on the evidence, because only two people were in the room when Teresa Rangel suffered a fatal gunshot wound.

“You didn’t get to hear from her, because her life was taken,” Deputy District Attorney Marlisa Ferreira told the jury.

The other person in the room that night was defendant Robert Vanderheiden, who is accused of premeditated murder in the shooting of 26-year-old Rangel. He has testified that his girlfriend was spinning the handgun on her finger, and the weapon accidentally fired as he tried to pull the gun away from her.

“This was a tragedy; a tragedy for two families,” Kirk McAllister, Vanderheiden’s attorney, told the jurors. “Don’t make it another tragedy by convicting Mr. Vanderheiden.”

The jury of six women and six men began deliberations about 3 p.m. Wednesday, shortly after the attorneys gave their closing arguments. The jury was expected to continue deliberating today.

Along with the murder charge, Vanderheiden is on trial accused of domestic battery of a spouse.

The shooting occurred about 9:45 p.m. March 21, 2011, at a rural home where Vanderheiden and Rangel lived with his grandparents along Warner Road, about a mile west of Highway 99 southwest of Keyes.

The defendant testified that he was several inches away from his girlfriend when he grabbed the gun and it fired. The bullet struck the center of her forehead.

The prosecutor argued that the bullet exited through the top of Rangel’s head, and three experts testified that there were no indications the gun was fired at close range. She told the jury the defendant’s story is not supported by the physical evidence.

Instead, the prosecution believes Vanderheiden shot his girlfriend in a fit of rage hours after Rangel had made another attempt to leave behind his controlling behavior and return to her family in Concord.

“He gets mad, because he’s losing control,” Ferreira said.

McAllister said the prosecution’s case is based on “elaborate theories,” and told the jurors they can’t convict his client unless it’s based on good evidence. He said the evidence that would indicate Vanderheiden committed a crime is not there, “it’s just speculation.”

Vanderheiden’s brother-in-law found the gun several feet away from the couch where Rangel was struck by the bullet. A shell casing was found not far from where the gun was first spotted.

The prosecutor told the jurors it’s reasonable to believe that Vanderheiden fired the .40-caliber Glock 27 pistol from several feet away. She said Vanderheiden’s account would mean the bullet entered Rangel’s forehead at an angle horizontally, instead of straight ahead.

The defense attorney argued that the shell casing was found only after two medics, four firefighters and sheriff’s deputies walked through the living room, suggesting it could have been kicked around before it was spotted several feet from the couch. “Everybody is going through there,” McAllister said. “This is like pingpong justice.”

He also told the jury that a DNA expert, who the defense hired to analyze the evidence, testified that he found DNA traces on the gun that match Rangel. “If she’s handling that gun, then Mr. Vanderheiden can’t be convicted,” McAllister told the jury.

Ferreira said McAllister misinterpreted his own expert’s testimony, because not being able to rule out someone as the source for DNA found on the gun doesn’t mean it’s a match. She argued that the blood spot found on the gun was so degraded that state Department of Justice criminalists couldn’t find a source for the DNA.

When deputies arrived at the home, Rangel was found laying on a living room couch bleeding profusely from the gunshot wound. Her boyfriend was leaning over her body, pleading for her to live.

“What happens after the shooting is a window into his mental state,” McAllister said, suggesting Vanderheiden was distraught after his girlfriend was accidentally shot. The defendant testified that he had no intentions of shooting his girlfriend and just wanted to pull the gun away from her.

Ferreira told the jury to also consider the testimony about the defendant’s controlling behavior, which intensified over a few months before the shooting. She played for the jury a recorded message left by Vanderheiden in February 2011, after he discovered a text message indicating Rangel wanted to return to her family.

“You people are trying to pull my beautiful flower away from me,” Vanderheiden says in the phone message for Rangel’s mother. “I love your daughter so much, and she’ll be in a good place. But she won’t be contacting you guys anymore.”

The prosecutor told the jury that Vanderheiden eventually got what he wanted.

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at rahumada@modbee.com or (209) 578-2394. Follow him on Twitter @ModBeeCourts.

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