Judge decides whether murder trial goes ahead in Modesto shooting after fight at bar

A Stanislaus County judge on Wednesday said there was sufficient evidence for Pete Warda to stand trial for murder in the shooting of Thomas Hinchman outside a north Modesto bar several months ago.

A fight between Warda, Hinchman and Christopher Woodward escalated to gunfire on Feb. 17 in the parking lot of the CR2 Bar and Billiards at Oakdale Road and Sylvan Avenue.

Frank Carson, Warda’s attorney, told the judge that there’s no doubt that his client shot Hinchman. But Carson argued that Warda was acting in self defense.

“What he had to do was stop that fight as quickly as possible,” Carson said. “The evidence shows Mr. Warda acted reasonably and necessarily.”

Chief Deputy District Attorney Jeff Laugero argued that three men wrestled on the ground, then stopped and stood up. The prosecutor said a witness saw Warda then fix his jacket, reach into his pocket, pull out the handgun, aim it Hinchman several feet away and shoot the man in the left side of his chest.

“That is a kill shot. That is not a warning shot,” Laugero told the judge.

Superior Court Judge Rick Distaso heard testimony this week from witnesses at the shooting scene, including Woodward, Hinchman’s friend. He testified that he was smoking a cigarette and leaning on Warda’s new black Range Rover outside the bar that night.

He said Warda told him to “Get the f--- off my car.” Woodward said he apologized and moved. Warda got in his sport utility vehicle and pulled out of the parking space. Woodward said Hinchman spit on the ground, and Warda took that as an insult.

Warda got out of his SUV, and Woodward testified that Warda punched him first in his face. At one point, Hinchman had Warda in a headlock, and Woodward punched Warda in the kidneys from behind, according to Woodward.

“I remember hearing a gunshot, then I remember seeing my friend on the ground,” Woodward said.

Carson told the judge that a toxicology determined that Hinchman had a 0.14% blood alcohol content level that night, nearly twice the legal limit. The defense attorney said Hinchman had cocaine and remnants of pain killers in his system, and was “fueled by a deadly witch’s brew of intoxicating substances..”

Hinchman’s friends testified that he didn’t see Hinchman ingest drugs that night, and he didn’t seem drunk.

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Thomas Hinchman, 22, of Modesto was fatally shot outside CR2 Bar and Billiards on Sunday night, Feb. 17, 2019, in north Modesto. Courtesy of Melissa Wright

Woodward said on the witness stand that he told police that he and Hinchman “Beat the dog s--- out of the guy,” when describing the fight with Warda. Woodward said he hit Warda as hard as he could.

Warda drove away from the bar that night, but he was found and arrested by police a few days later. Before Warda was taken into custody, Woodward said he went looking for Warda at the defendant’s business, Luigi’s Pizza parlor on Yosemite Boulevard in Modesto.

Carson argued that Woodward went into the pizza parlor and told the employees that he was looking for their boss to kill him. Woodward said he doesn’t recall saying that.

“My plans were not kill Mr. Warda. I was just saying that because I was mad,” Woodward testified.

He said he had a bag slung over his arm when he went into Luigi’s Pizza, but he didn’t recall what was in it. Woodward also said he didn’t recall having a hunting knife with him that day, but it’s possible.

Charisma Weed saw the fight in the parking lot that night. She testified that the three males seemed to be pushing each other, before Warda was on the ground. She said the two other men “were beating him up.” She didn’t see Warda fighting back when he was on the ground.

She didn’t see how the fight began. Weed said in court that the two other men were “punching and kicking” Warda, who was in the fetal position. She heard another woman say “That’s enough,” and the three men appeared to separate.

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Modesto Police are investigating a shooting that happened in the 3400 block of Oakdale Road, just south of Sylvan Avenue in Modesto. A shooting sent one victim to a local hospital with a single gunshot wound Sunday Feb. 17, 2019 just after 9pm. Marty Bicek Marty Bicek/The Modesto

Weed testified that Warda got up, fixed his jacket and pulled out a gun from what appeared to be his waistband.

“He pulled (the gun) aimed it at the kid and shot,” Weed said. “(Hinchman’s) arms flew up in the air, and he fell back to the ground.”

Carson showed video from a cell phone’s camera of the beginning of the fight. The video came from Warda’s friend, who was sitting in the Ranger Rover’s passenger seat. The defense attorney said the video doesn’t show Warda moving toward Hinchman and Woodward as the fight started.

“What it shows is that they’re advancing toward him,” Carson said.

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Peter Warda

The prosecutor said Warda shouldn’t have been armed with a gun, because he’s a convicted felon. Laugero argued that Warda was leaving the parking lot, but he stopped his SUV and got out to confront Hinchman and Woodward.

“The killing of Mr. Hinchman was over a car,” Laugero told the judge. “Mr. Warda was in the position to leave the scene, and none of this would’ve happened.”

Carson said Warda’s actions were “absolutely justified.”

Warda’s preliminary hearing ended Wednesday with Judge Distaso’s ruling. He said Warda should stand trial on charges of murder and being a felon in possession of a handgun. Warda, who remains in custody at the Stanislaus County Jail, was scheduled to return court Sept. 11 for an arraignment hearing.

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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.