Two men accused in the bludgeoning death of a 51-year-old handyman inside a West 20th Street home will stand trial for murder, a Merced County judge decided Friday.
Commissioner Harry Jacobs concluded during a preliminary hearing that ample evidence exists to try Jerry Dale Choate, 22, and Christopher Paul Anderson, 19, for allegedly beating Richard Mora to death with an axe handle during a robbery.
Meanwhile, new details revealed Choate and Anderson weren't the only ones alleged to be at the scene when Mora was killed. Defense attorneys in the case also raised questions about the lead detective's family connections to the prosecution's star witness.
Both men have pleaded not guilty to the murder charges. Choate, who goes by the nickname "JJ," claims to have been somewhere else the night of the killing, while Anderson maintains he was at the scene, but didn't participate, according to their attorneys.
Mora's decomposing body was found inside the 326 W. 20th St. home Aug. 1. Detectives arrested Choate and Anderson less than two weeks later.
Prosecutors haven't pinned down the specific date of the killing, although Mora was last seen alive on July 28. Merced police detectives believe Mora was renovating the home when the defendants broke into the home, robbed him of tools and killed him.
Detective Joe Deliman,the case's lead investigator, testified about statements Anderson made, saying he was nervous, sweating and claimed he "didn't do anything wrong." Anderson told detectives he, Choate and a woman planned on going to the 20th Street home during an evening to steal some tools. As part of the plot, Choate said he'd "knockout" whoever was inside the house, if he had to.
Choate entered the home through a window, carrying an axe handle, while Anderson crawled after him. The woman who accompanied the defendants waited outside, to act as a lookout. Anderson described seeing Choate's shadow swinging the handle, hitting the victim. Anderson told detectives he "freaked out" and fled through the back door.
The prosecution's star witness, the woman who allegedly acted as the lookout for the defendants, testified during Friday's hearing. The Sun-Star agreed to withhold her identity, because of concerns raised by the prosecution about her personal safety.
She was given immunity for her testimony by the Merced County District Attorney's Office, admitting she and the defendants smoked methamphetamine before going to the house. She provided the duo with gloves and hoodies, and saw Choate pick up an item that resembled "a stick" in the yard of the 20th Street home.
After Choate and Anderson climbed through the window, while waiting outside she heard "a hit, then a struggle and more hitting." She observed Anderson flee from the house, and she also ran. The witness recalled seeing Choate leave the house with two bags, saying "what are you guys leaving without me for?"
An unusual detail also emerged during Friday's hearing. Under cross-examination from deputy public defenders Mishya Rimpel Singh and Eric Dumars, the prosecution witness acknowledged she's a longtime friend of Detective Deliman's daughter -- and was even wearing pants she'd borrowed from Deliman's daughter when the murder happened.
Singh and Dumars, who are defending Choate, peppered Deliman with questions about his daughter's connection with the prosecution's star witness. Deliman acknowledged he'd first met the witness when she and his daughter were friends in high school. Still, Deliman said he didn't know how often his daughter and the witness "hung out," adding he hadn't seen the witness since his daughter was in high school, which was nearly 10 years ago.
When asked by Dumars whether his daughter's relationship with the witness had any effect on his investigation, Deliman replied "No." Deliman said he'd spoken to officials in the district attorney's office about whether the woman should be arrested as a suspect in the homicide. Deliman was informed she could be used as a witness and she wasn't arrested.
Dumars asked Deliman why he didn't ask the department to assign another detective to the case, after realizing his daughter had a close relationship with a key witness. "It's not impeding the investigation," Deliman replied.
Deputy District Attorney Rob Carroll, the prosecutor in the case, said the defense brought up the subject of Deliman's daughter merely as a "red herring" to divert attention away from Choate, the alleged killer. Carroll added he's fully confident the prosecution's primary witness is being honest. "The witness was a lookout, but she wasn't the killer. And she had no idea Choate was going to kill the victim," Carroll said. "I am sure we have the right guy. Choate's co-defendant implicated him also."
After Friday's hearing, Dumars said his client has an alibi, and was with his wife when the murder happened. Dumars questions the veracity of the prosecution witness's account. "JJ didn't do it. He wasn't even there," Dumars said. "The district attorney is letting an admitted murderer get away because she points her finger to save her skin. The evidence shows a tainted investigation and a vendetta against out client."
Jeffrey Tenenbaum, Anderson's attorney, questioned why his client has been charged with murder -- while the other witness was given total immunity, despite her involvement in the crime. Tenenbaum said his client committed second degree burglary, but is not a killer. "Mr. Choate is more than likely the one who swung an object and killed this man," Tenenbaum told the judge. "My client had no idea that was going to go down. There's nothing linking him except his presence."
During the hearing, Deliman also testified about how a dusty footprint at the scene matched Choate's shoe. Choate's shoes have been sent to a state Department of Justice lab for analysis.
Anderson is being held at the jail on suspicion of murder and burglary. His bail is $1 million.
Choate is being held on suspicion of murder, burglary and parole violation. He had no bail.
Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.