Rick Cooley met Korey Kauffman for the first time March 30, 2012. Cooley says Kauffman that morning was looking over a fence and saying he was going to take irrigation pipes from Frank Carson’s 5-acre Turlock property.
“Korey said he was going to go over there and get ’em,” Cooley testified Wednesday. “He asked me if I wanted to go with him, and I said ‘no.’ ”
Kauffman left that night to “recycle,” according to Cooley. Kauffman never returned, and he wasn’t seen alive again.
Cooley testified Wednesday in a preliminary hearing for Carson and five others charged in Kauffman’s death. Carson, a prominent Modesto defense attorney, is accused of recruiting a group of people to send a violent message to thieves repeatedly stealing antiques and scrap metal from his property.
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Cooley was living with his brother, Mike Cooley, for a few weeks in late March 2012. Rick Cooley was staying in a shed behind his brother’s home along Lander Avenue. A cyclone fence separated the Cooley home and Carson’s expansive property on Ninth Street. The attorney stored on the property numerous classic cars, old household appliances, piles of scrap metal and antiques.
Kauffman was a friend of Mike Cooley’s, and routinely visited the Lander Avenue home. Rick Cooley first encountered Kauffman that morning in late March 2012 looking over into Carson’s property. “He was looking at some water pipes for a field,” Rick Cooley said on the witness stand.
He said in court there were about eight irrigation pipes on the ground about 10 feet away from the fence. About 5:30 p.m. that same day, Rick Cooley saw two white men on Carson’s property looking at him, his brother and a friend playing horseshoes behind his brother’s home.
Rick Cooley testified that he saw the same two men on a few other occasions walking around the Carson property. He also said the men did not have weapons. He later said one of the men was Frank Carson, but the defense raised concerns about the courtroom identification. The defense attorneys told the judge that Rick Cooley looked through the courtroom twice, before turning his head to identify Carson.
About 10 p.m. March 30, 2012, Rick Cooley saw three men on Carson’s property. He testified that two of the men were carrying what appeared to be rifles. He said it appeared the two men he saw earlier that day were not among the three men he saw that night. He said the three men split up, heading in different directions on Carson’s property.
About 11 p.m., Kauffman knocked on Mike Cooley’s front door. Rick Cooley said he was in his brother’s home at the time and witnessed the conversation. Kauffman told Mike Cooley that he was heading out to go “recycling.” Mike Cooley warned Kauffman not to go into Carson’s property, because they had spotted men there earlier.
Kauffman told Mike Cooley “I’m not, I’m going down the street to recycle,” according to Rick Cooley’s testimony. He said he didn’t hear gunfire, screams or pipes being moved that night.
The prosecution claims Kauffman was shot to death after he was caught trespassing on Carson’s property. Rick Cooley said Kauffman never returned for his bicycle, which he left at the Cooley home.
Rick Cooley testified that Kauffman was polite and nice and well liked by his brother and his brother’s girlfriend, Eula Keyes. He said he did not hear any yelling or see any signs of an argument between Kauffman, Mike Cooley and Keyes on March 30, 2012.
During cross-examination, Rick Cooley said his brother and Keyes left early that evening to go “recycling.” He said that’s a term they use when they go out searching for recyclable materials, for instance at neighborhood parks. He said it doesn’t mean stealing recyclable materials. The couple returned home later that evening.
Rick Cooley also said he didn’t initially tell police about the irrigation pipes. When asked why he withheld information from police, he answered “I don’t know.”
The witness also said he didn’t look over the fence to see if the pipes were still on Carson’s property, even a few days after Kauffman’s disappearance. “I didn’t care what he had over on that property,” Rick Cooley said in court.
The defense wanted to ask Rick Cooley if he knew whether his brother was selling drugs out of his Lander Avenue home, arguing that drug intoxication could affect the memory of witnesses at the home. But the judge did not allow that line of questioning.
Rick Cooley testified that he was not using drugs in late March 2012, and that neither his brother nor Keyes told him that drugs were being sold out of the home. Testimony in the preliminary hearing continues Thursday.