Closing arguments under way in Modesto lawyer Frank Carson’s murder trial

The latest: Prosecutor details key witness’ testimony in Korey Kauffman murder case

A prosecutor on Friday told a jury that Modesto attorney Frank Carson confronted people who he believed were stealing antiques and scrap metal from his property. She argued that Carson’s aggression continued to escalate, leading to the death of Korey Kauffman.

“That’s what he does; he’s a bully,” said Chief Deputy District Attorney Marlisa Ferreira. “And he makes people scared.”

About 14 months after it began, lawyers on Friday began giving their closing arguments in the trial for Carson and two others accused of murder in Kauffman’s death.

Kauffman was 26 years old when he disappeared in spring 2012. His remains were found more than a year later in a remote area of the Stanislaus National Forest in Mariposa County.

The prosecution has alleged Carson recruited a group of people to send a violent message to burglars, which resulted in Kauffman’s death after he was caught in late March 2012 trying to steal irrigation pipes from Carson.

“And he was never seen again,” Ferreira said. “This is a case about a man (Carson) who swore to uphold the law, follow the law, and yet he broke the law.”

The defense has said this is a case of wrongful prosecution by vindictive prosecutors intent on ruining Carson, a prominent criminal defense attorney. The closing arguments are expected to continue next week, when the defense attorneys will speak to the jury about the evidence.

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Carson is accused of being the ringleader of a criminal conspiracy to thwart thieves from repeatedly stealing from his property on Ninth Street in Turlock.

Carson and brothers Baljit Athwal and Daljit Atwal have been charged with murder in Kauffman’s death. The defendants also are charged with criminal conspiracy to obstruct justice.

The prosecutor alleged that evidence was destroyed , complaints and civil lawsuits were filed to disrupt the murder investigation, and deceitful acts were committed while in possession of Kauffman’s cell phone after he went missing. The prosecution has to prove that a defendant participated in at least one of these alleged acts of obstruction to be convicted of that charge.

Ferreira on Friday went through of series of incidents in which, she says, Carson demonstrated a pattern of “escalating” aggressive and confrontational behavior with people he believed had stolen from him. She said the behavior went on for several years leading up to Kauffman’s death.

“People were taking what belonged to Mr. Carson,” Ferreira told the jurors. “And they were taking it, recycling it and making money off of it. And he got mad.”

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Frank Carson and his wife Georgia DeFilippo arrive at the Stanislaus County Superior Courthouse in Modesto, Calif., Friday, June 14, 2019. Andy Alfaro

The prosecutor argued that text messages between Carson’s wife and his stepdaughter in February 2011 show how Carson was intent on confronting thieves on his own, rather than call police. Ferreira said Carson’s stepdaughter was instructed to call Carson if motion detectors alerted someone was on the property.

“They were trying to actively catch people on the property,” Ferreira said. “And they’re looking to hire people to do it.”

Carson’s wife, Georgia DeFilippo, and her daughter, Christina DeFilippo, claim they were wrongfully prosecuted in a “witch hunt” by the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office. The mother and daughter were once accused in the alleged murder conspiracy in Kauffman’s death. The DeFilippos have since been cleared of any wrongdoing.

Robert Lee Woody has testified that Daljit Atwal shot Kauffman during a confrontation with him and the defendant’s brother. The defense has challenged the credibility of Woody, who once claimed that he killed Kauffman and fed his remains to pigs.

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Stanislaus County Chief Deputy District Attorney Marlisa Ferreira arrives at the Stanislaus County Superior Courthouse with his lawyer in Modesto, Calif., Friday, June 14, 2019. Andy Alfaro

Baljit Athwal and Daljit Atwal own and operate the Pop-N-Cork liquor store on East Avenue in Turlock. Ferreira said Woody worked at the store, and Kauffman frequented the business.

Percy Martinez, Carson’s attorney, told the jury in his April 2018 opening statement that a state Department of Justice analysis found no blood on Kauffman’s clothes, socks or shoes, as Woody has suggested in his statements. He said there was nothing that corroborated the defendants had anything to do with Kauffman’s death.

Woody also has claimed that Kauffman’s body was buried just outside the brothers’ Turlock liquor store before it was unearthed and dumped in a remote area of the national forest. Prosecutors have argued that the remains were left exposed to the natural elements and animals scavenging for food.

Woody, who initially was the only one charged with Kauffman’s murder for more than a year, received a plea deal and will be formally sentenced to seven years and four months in prison once he is done testifying.

Ferreira told the jury that the prosecution must prove the defendants did something to facilitate, promote, encourage or instigate Kauffman’s death to convict the three defendants of murder, even though only one of them is accused of shooting Kauffman. They don’t need to be at the scene of the killing to be convicted of first-degree murder.

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Daljit Atwal, middle, arrives at the Stanislaus County Superior Courthouse with attorney Jai Gohel, right, in Modesto, Calif., Friday, June 14, 2019. Andy Alfaro

The jury started listening to testimony in April 2018. Like the trial, the preliminary hearing went on for more than a year, 18 months. That hearing, however, involved six defendants and ended with the judge dropping all charges against Carson’s wife and his stepdaughter, and reduced charges against former California HIghway Patrol office Walter Wells.

But Judge Barbara Zuniga ruled that the three defendants should stand trial. It was the longest preliminary hearing in Stanislaus County history.

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Rosalio Ahumada writes news stories about criminal court cases in Stanislaus County for The Modesto Bee, issues related to immigration and immigrant communities and breaking news related to crime and public safety. From time to time, he covers the Modesto City Council meetings. He has worked as a news reporter in the Northern San Joaquin Valley since 2004.