March 5, 2014

Suspect arrested in homicide of long-missing Turlock man

A Turlock man has been charged with the murder of Korey Kauffman, whose high-profile case has been investigated by a five-agency task force since his body was found in August, a year and a half after his disappearance.

A seven-month, five-agency investigation into the death of a Turlock man after his disappearance two years ago has resulted in the arrest of one person, but work on the case continues and few details have been made public.

Robert Lee Woody, 38, was arrested over the weekend and pleaded not guilty in court Tuesday on a charge of murdering Korey Kauffman, a charge of conspiracy and a special enhancement for lying in wait, according to court documents.

In the criminal complaint against Woody, the conspiracy charge is supported by four allegations of involvement with three co-conspirators, who are listed only as B, C and D.

Woody and co-conspirator B allegedly threatened a witness on behalf of co-conspirator C, who told Woody he would provide legal representation and with the help of other co-conspirators bail Woody out of jail in the event of his arrest. Co-conspirators B and D also paid for the defendant to leave the area to avoid becoming a witness or suspect in Kauffman’s death, according to the document.

Kauffman’s body was discovered by hunters in an isolated area of Mariposa County in August. He sold scrap metal, and on the day of his disappearance was walking to a home on Ninth Street in Turlock where something had piqued his interest, investigators said at the time.

An arrest warrant for Woody lists his last known address on East Avenue in Turlock. The home was searched last week, one of at least six searches that continued into this week.

Stanislaus County sheriff’s Sgt. Keith Rakoncza said only that the searches were related to a homicide investigation but wouldn’t confirm if it was Kauffman’s.

But the subject of three of the searches, Baljit Singh Athwal, said investigators told him his two Turlock businesses and Ceres home were searched Monday as part of the investigation into Kauffman’s death. He said this is the second time in two years that his homes and businesses were searched.

Athwal said he never knew Kauffman and doesn’t know why investigators continue to focus on him and his brother, with whom he co-owns two Pop-n-Cork Liquors stores.

“This is the word on the street, they tell me,” Athwal said. “What’s wrong with their intelligence?”

Athwal said he has known Woody for about 10 years. The defendant was a customer at the Pop-n-Cork on East Avenue, steps from Woody’s house.

Athwal said Woody had struggled with drug addiction but was clean for many years, during which time Athwal would help him by giving him money for odd jobs like mowing his lawn or helping him with trips to Costco. He said he stopped speaking to Woody about seven months ago when Woody again started using drugs.

Athwal said police destroyed his stores by breaking the doors, cutting wires to his lottery machine and surveillance cameras, and seizing guns he uses for protection. At his home on Wild Oak Drive, they took computers, cellphones and iPads. Athwal said the officers’ weapons scared his three young children and the 5-year-old son of his brother, Daljit Athwal, whose nearby home on Southern Oak Drive also was searched.

Baljit Athwal said he was handcuffed and put into the front seat of a Turlock police detective’s vehicle to be taken to a department – he wasn’t sure which one – for questioning. But shortly after leaving his home Monday morning, Athwal said, the car in which he and the detective were riding was broadsided by another car.

He said he had neck and back pain, and the detective suffered a head wound.

The Bee inquired with Ceres police about the accident, but the department refused to release information about the crash other than the time and location and that two people were taken to the hospital.

Athwal said he and the detective were taken to Memorial Medical Center. After he was treated, Athwal said he was left at the hospital and had to call family for a ride. He said he was never questioned and has since tried to contact several agencies to have his property returned, but is getting the runaround.

“Who’s responsible, the Turlock PD, the Sheriff’s Department or Ceres?” he said.

A task force of investigators from the Modesto, Turlock and Ceres police departments, the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department, the California Department of Corrections and the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office is investigating the case.

Assistant District Attorney Carol Shipley said very little Wednesday about Woody’s arrest, including where it occurred. She would not name his co-conspirators or say if Woody is suspected of carrying out the homicide, or how Kauffman died.

Shipley also would not say where Woody is being housed but said it is a location that ensures his safety. Court documents indicate he is being held on a no-bail warrant. However, he is not listed as an inmate in Stanislaus County jail custody records.

Athwal said he has received death threats from unknown people calling his home and business since the searches and has retained Frank Carson as an attorney.

Carson also represented bail agent Praveen Singh, who was named in court documents as a person of interest in Kauffman’s death when he was arrested in December on unrelated charges.

Carson later withdrew from the case after prosecutors claimed a conflict of interest because Carson was listened as a witness in Singh’s case.

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