14 months after it began, murder trial of Modesto attorney, two others goes to jury

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

A Stanislaus County jury on Wednesday began its deliberations in the trial for Modesto attorney Frank Carson and two others accused of murder in the death of Korey Kauffman.

Carson, a prominent criminal defense attorney, and brothers Baljit Athwal and Daljit Atwal also are accused of participating in an alleged criminal conspiracy to obstruct investigators looking into Kauffman’s death.

The 26-year-old Turlock man 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.

After the judge gave the jury its instructions Wednesday morning, the jurors were sent out of the courtroom at 11:50 a.m. and into the deliberation room. The jury of 10 women and two men heard about seven days’ worth of closing arguments from the attorneys.

The contentious murder trial in Stanislaus Superior Court began 14 months ago. The preliminary hearing, which was held to determine whether there was enough evidence for a trial, went on for 18 months — the longest in Stanislaus County history. The defendants were arrested and formally charged in August 2015. The investigation into Kauffman’s disappearance began in April 2012.

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Korey Kauffman

Carson is accused of being the ringleader of a criminal conspiracy to thwart thieves from repeatedly stealing from his property. The prosecution alleges 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.

The defense says this is a case of wrongful accusations by vindictive prosecutors intent on ruining Carson. The defense attorneys told the jury that the prosecution relied on a series of witnesses who had “an axe to grind”: admitted thieves, drug addicts or those who have received leniency in their own criminal cases in exchange for their testimony.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Marlisa Ferreira called Carson a “bully” who intimidates people and wanted to stop the burglaries without calling police. She said the defense was simply trying to divert their attention from Carson’s conduct leading up to Kauffman’s death.

“It’s smoke and mirrors designed to distract you from the truth,” Ferreira told the jury. “The defense wants you to believe that everyone is lying.”

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

Hans Hjertonsson, Daljit Atwal’s attorney, has told the jury that investigators fed information to Robert Lee Woody to manipulate the witness into providing details that would implicate Carson and his co-defendants.

“They had an agenda,” Hjertonsson said. “They had a theory, and Robert Woody was their vehicle.”

Woody, the prosecution’s key witness, testified that Kauffman was shot to death during a confrontation with the brothers. Baljit Athwal is known to friends as “Bobby” and Daljit Atwal is known as “Dee.” The siblings’ last names have slightly different spellings.

Woody worked for the brothers at their convenience store, Pop-N-Cork, on East Avenue in Turlock. Kauffman was known to frequent the store as a customer.

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Robert Lee Woody Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department

In 2014, Woody was secretly recorded by his then-girlfriend at the request of investigators. Woody claimed that he alone killed Kauffman pulled out his teeth, burned his hair and fed his remains to pigs. He later told authorities he lied to impress his girlfriend.

At trial, Woody testified that he helped the brothers remove Kauffman’s body from Carson’s property and buried it near the convenience store. He says they unearthed Kauffman’s remains a few weeks later and dumped the body about 90 minutes from Turlock.

Jai Gohel, Baljit Athwal’s attorney, argued that Woody was told in his first police interrogation that he was facing life in prison without the chance of parole. Gohel told the jury that Woody was given a way out — point the finger at Baljit Athwal and Daljit Atwal and implicate Carson.

“That makes him a very dedicated liar,” Gohel said.

The prosecutor told the jury that investigator Kirk Bunch was only answering Woody’s question about the charges he was facing and what the outcome would be if he was convicted.

Woody, who initially was the only one charged with Kauffman’s murder, received a plea deal and will be formally sentenced to seven years and four months in prison for his role in Kauffman’s death.

In July 2016, Woody said he gave the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office false information when he told authorities he saw Carson and former California Highway Patrol officer Walter Wells where Kauffman was killed.

The prosecutor told the jury that holes found in the back of Kauffman’s jacket that go into his T-shirt corroborates Woody’s testimony — that Kauffman was shot in the back. Ferreira also said Woody told his family about what happened to Kauffman long before he was first questioned by authorities.

“Why would he lie to his own family?” Ferreira argued.

Kauffman’s remains were decomposed when found by two hunters in August 2013 in the Stanislaus National Forest. Authorities were not able to determine the cause of death.

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Baljit Athwal arrives at the Stanislaus County Superior Courthouse in Modesto, Calif., Friday, June 14, 2019. Daljit Atwal

Percy Martinez, Carson’s attorney, has told the jury that the prosecution’s theory of Kauffman’s death is based on the lies of a career criminal, Michael Cooley. Martinez said the prosecution failed to look for DNA traces on 13 knives Cooley had, even though there were holes on Kauffman’s clothes that could’ve been indications of stab wounds.

“They just accepted what Michael Cooley told them,” Martinez argued in court.

Cooley’s Lander Avenue home and Carson’s Ninth Street property were separated by a fence. Carson had been upset over repeated burglaries on his property, and he believed Cooley and his friends were crawling through a hole in the fence to steal antiques and scrap metal.

The prosecutor has told the jury about a 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, including Cooley. She said the behavior went on for several years leading up to Kauffman’s death.

Ferreira argued that once Kauffman was killed, the complaints from Carson about burglaries on his property stopped. She suggested to the jury that Carson had accomplished what he set out to do.

“The post-murder silence is deafening,” Ferreira said.

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Daljit Atwal arrives at the Stanislaus County Superior Courthouse with his lawyer in Modesto, Calif., Friday, June 14, 2019.

On Wednesday, Judge Barbara Zuniga gave the jurors an index of the numerous items entered into evidence over the past year. Zuniga told the jurors that they can ask to listen recordings. For instance, the attorneys have presented in court recordings of police interrogations, wiretapped phones calls and video of where Kauffman’s remains were found.

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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.