A defense attorney on Monday said the prosecution has employed a “selective use of evidence” to build a case against former California Highway Patrol officer Walter Wells, failing to link him to the disappearance and death of Korey Kauffman.
Timothy Rien told Judge Barbara Zuniga said the prosecutor cherry-picked and stretched facts of little or no significance, trying to establish a connection between his client and Kauffman’s death.
The prosecutor argued that calls from Kauffman’s cell phone and Wells’ cell phone were connected through the same cell phone sector on the night Kauffman disappeared. But Rien said that evidence did not offer any proof that Wells Kauffman’s phone.
He said the signals from cell phone towers in that area oscillated and overlapped, and it did not pinpoint the location of the calls. Also, Rien argued that Kauffman and most of the defendants, including Wells, lived, shopped, socialized and worked in the same area covered by these cell phone towers, which included most of Turlock and the area south of Modesto.
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Wells was arrested August 2015 and accused of murder in Kauffman’s slaying along with co-defendants, who include prominent Modesto attorney Frank Carson. The prosecution has argued that Carson recruited a group of people to send a violent message to thieves stealing from him, which led to Kauffman’s death.
Authorities believe Kauffman, 26, was shot to death in late March 2012 after he was caught trying to steal scrap metal from Carson’s Ninth Street property in Turlock. Kauffman’s remains were found in August 2013 in a remote area of the Stanislaus National Forest in Mariposa County.
Wells was released from the Stanislaus County Jail in mid-December on $50,000 bail.
Prosecutors have conceded they will not argue in support of the murder charge against Wells. But the prosecution is asking the judge to order a trial for Wells on felony charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice and acting as an accessory after the alleged murder was committed.
Rien argued Monday there isn’t sufficient evidence to support any of the allegations against his client. He told the judge she can believe key prosecution witness Robert Lee Woody or not; either way his statements should result in the dismissal of all charges against Wells.
Woody has testified that brothers Baljit Athwal and Daljit Atwal were fighting with Kauffman on Carson’s property when Kauffman was shot to death. He also has claimed that Kauffman’s body was buried just outside the store. The liquor store owners are also charged with murder in Kauffman’s death.
Rien argued that Woody has confirmed Wells was not involved in Kauffman’s death or in the removal of his body. Woody, who was the first arrested in the murder case, has said he lied on July 22, when he told the prosecutor and two investigators that he saw Carson and Wells at Carson’s property around the time he witnessed Kauffman’s death.
Woody has testified Baljit Athwal and Daljit Atwal were fighting with Kauffman on Carson’s property when Kauffman was shot to death. He also has claimed that Kauffman’s body was buried just outside the store. The liquor store owners are also charged with murder in Kauffman’s death and remain in jail, along with Carson.
Baljit Athwal and Daljit Atwal own a Pop-N-Cork liquor store on East Avenue in Turlock, and Woody worked at the store. Wells would frequent the store and was drinking in a bar in a back room of the store on the night Kauffman disappeared.
Wells was with relatives at the store early in the evening before they left for dinner. They returned to the store about 10 p.m. before leaving again about 1 a.m., Rien said. Wells went home with his wife, and his car remained parked that night, according to Rien.
Initially, testimony indicated Wells was expected for breakfast the following morning but failed to show up. But a review of a police interview later corrected the testimony, indicating Wells was not expected for breakfast that morning because he was hungover.
Rien said he doesn’t believe Detective Jon Evers was intentionally mistaken, but he said it was another example of the prosecution trying “to fit round pegs in square holes.”
Hans Hjertonsson, Daljit Atwal’s attorney, began his closing argument Monday afternoon, telling the judge that Woody was forced to make up a story to escape life in prison or the death penalty. He said investigators repeatedly told Woody that they knew he was with Baljit Athwal and Daljit Atwal on Carson’s property when Kauffman was killed, but Woody continued to deny that until Aug. 14, 2015.
That was the day Woody decided to cooperate with the prosecution. “(Woody) acknowledges, ‘If that’s what you’re saying, that’s what happened,’” Hjertonsson argued.
But Woody’s attorneys kept offering him to investigators for interrogations, even after saying he knew nothing about Kauffman’s death over and over again, Hjertonsson said. He read from a transcript where Woody’s attorney Martin Baker told an investigator: “I want to close this case. I don’t want to be stuck in a 6-month murder trial with this guy.”
During these interrogations, Hjertonsson said investigators were the first to say Kauffman was buried near the liquor store, Kauffman’s fingers were severed, Baljit Athwal’s pickup was burned to destroy evidence; not Woody. He argued that investigators were the first to suggest to Woody that he tried to stop the fight with Kauffman to offer Woody an “escape route” by minimizing his role in the death.
Hjertonsson told the judge that investigators told Woody they already knew what happened to Kauffman, but they just needed him to corroborate their information. The attorney said video recordings of Woody’s interrogations should be shown to law enforcement officials as how not to question a suspect.
“Objective fact-finders they are not,” Hjertonsson said about investigators in the Kauffman case. “They’ve been squeezing and molding this into something that makes sense in their minds.”