Two Modesto residents on Friday appeared in court for the first time since they were arrested earlier this week as suspects in the death of a Merced woman found at a Highway 99 rest stop near Turlock a year ago.
Bryan Dean Small, 42, and Cheryl Ruth Liberty, 65, pleaded not guilty. Small is accused of murder in the death of 41-year-old Christina Maria Cardoza. Liberty is accused of being an accessory in Cardoza’s death.
The defendants entered the courtroom wearing jail inmate jumpsuits with shackles on their wrists and ankles. Liberty was crying throughout the arraignment hearing Friday afternoon.
Matthew Yeoman, Liberty’s court-appointed attorney, told the judge that his client was having a hard time in custody at the jail. The defense attorney mentioned that Liberty has no criminal record and suggested her bail be reduced.
Stanislaus Superior Court Judge Ricardo Córdova said Liberty’s bail should remain at the typical amount for an accessory charge – $25,000. The judge set Small’s bail at $2 million. Small was convicted last year of robbery.
The defendants were scheduled to return to court March 9 for a pretrial hearing. It’s unclear how the defendants know each other.
As a bailiff ushered her out of the courtroom, Liberty mouthed to her co-defendant “I hate you.” Small quickly replied to her “I love you.” But Liberty responded to him by saying again “I hate you.” Her voice could clearly be heard the second time she said it in the courtroom.
Stanislaus County sheriff’s detectives arrested the defendants on Wednesday. Both were considered “persons of interest” in Cardoza’s death during the initial investigation.
Just after 8 p.m. Feb. 26, 2014, medics responded to the northbound rest stop on Highway 99 near Turlock. They provided medical aid to Cardoza, who died at the scene.
Law enforcement officials were called, and investigators learned Cardoza had suffered an injury. An autopsy determined she died from blunt force trauma to her upper body.
Sheriff’s officials said Small and Cardoza had been in a dispute in a rural area in Merced County before their arrival at the rest stop. The detectives later found evidence indicating Small had killed Cardoza, and Liberty helped him after Cardoza had been killed, according to sheriff’s officials.