Crime

Judge hears arguments over Modesto business owner accused in homeless man’s death

A Stanislaus County judge on Wednesday refused to reduce a $3 million bail amount for a Modesto tattoo parlor owner accused of murder in the shooting of a homeless man.

Jeremy Don Fennell, 36, has pleaded not guilty to the murder charge in the death of 25-year-old Lawrence Walker. Fennell also has denied enhancements that he committed that alleged crime with the use of a gun.

Investigators say Fennell shot Walker about noon on March 15 behind Fennell’s tattoo parlor, Sin Cal Industries, along McHenry Avenue. Fennell, who holds a permit to carry a concealed gun, called 911 to report he’d shot a “homeless guy” who’d “attacked” him, according to an arrest affidavit filed in court.

Modesto police Detective Joshua Grant wrote in the affidavit that Fennell “had a malicious predisposition at the time he confronted and ultimately shot and killed Lawrence Walker with a firearm.” Grant said his investigation included witness statements, security camera video, Instagram social media posts and police body cam videos.

Fennell, who was arrested last week, returned to court Wednesday morning with his beard shaved off. He sat quietly next to his attorney, Kirk McAllister. The defense attorney told the judge that the court’s rigid adherence to the bail schedule goes against his client’s due process rights.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Jeff Laugero argued that Fennell’s own words and actions show the danger he presents to the public if he were to be released from jail pending prosecution.

Modesto police initially arrested Fennell on suspicion of murder several hours after the shooting. But prosecutors later declined to file charges against Fennell, saying they wanted to conduct further investigation. Five months after the shooting, prosecutors on Aug. 20 filed the murder charge against Fennell.

On Wednesday, McAllister called Grant to the stand. Grant testified that he spoke to Fennell’s attorney in several phone calls since the March 15 shooting. About 4 p.m. Aug. 20, Grant called McAllister to inform him that he had obtained an arrest warrant for Fennell.

Grant said he and McAllister discussed arrangements for Fennell to surrender two hours later. The detective said Fennell arrived on time at the Police Department.

“I escorted him upstairs after I allowed him to exchange goodbyes with his wife,” Grant testified.

The prosecutor asked the detective about Fennell’s social media posts. Grant said someone who followed local tattoo artists encountered Fennell’s post about how he felt about all homeless people.

“The post itself had made her upset, because she had been homeless herself,” Grant said.

The Instagram post from Fennell’s account days before the shooting says that all the homeless want are “... back packs to steal s--- and hoodies to hide their pathetic nasty faces while they do those crimes .... If we can not kill them all like we can other pests then we must not feed the wild drug addicts,” according to the affidavit.

The detective also was asked about police body cam video of encounters with Fennell after reported burglaries and vandalism at his business.

In a late January report of broken glass cabinets, Fennell was seen telling an officer that a woman wondering about solutions to house homeless people once asked him “Why don’t we just build stadiums for homeless people?” And Fennell responded, “Put ‘em all in there and burn it down,” according to Grant’s affidavit.

About 90 letters of support for Fennell’s bail reduction were submitted to the court through the defense attorney. They were letters from fellow church members and business owners, according to McAllister.

Stanislaus Superior Court Judge Scott Steffen acknowledge that he had received “so many letters in support” of Fennell. But Steffen also said he did have to consider the public’s safety, and he was not willing to reduce Fennell’s bail.

The judge scheduled Fennell to return to court Sept. 17 for a pretrial hearing.

After the hearing, McAllister called Walker “a violent criminal,” who had been charged with serious felonies, but the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office failed to keep him off the streets.

“If the District Attorney’s Office had been doing its job, this criminal would not have been on the streets confronting my client, the businessman,” McAllister said in the courthouse hallway.

Grant’s description of the deadly shooting in the affidavit is based on his review of security camera video and statements from Walker’s girlfriend, Jessica Estrada. He wrote that in the brief encounter, Fennell arrived at the business, parked his vehicle and approached Walker and Estrada, who were seated on the sidewalk behind the tattoo parlor. Estrada said Fennell had a black handgun wrapped in his sweatshirt.

Walker stood up and Fennell took a few steps back, then brandished his handgun and pointed it at Walker, according to Grant.

“Walker appeared to take one small step forward before coming to a stop,” Grant wrote in the affidavit. “A few seconds later, Walker appeared to take a side step to his left. Shortly after, Fennell fired one shot at Walker causing Walker to fall to the ground.”

Naomi Mills, Walker’s mother, has told The Bee that her son wasn’t a bad person, but he had some issues and he used drugs to kill the pain.

“Why would you get out of the car with a gun, when you could have called the police and had them leave?” Mills said.

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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.
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