Crime

Numerous bizarre twists in murder case against Modesto defense attorney

Pop-N-Cork liquor store in Turlock.
Pop-N-Cork liquor store in Turlock. pguerra@modbee.com

Almost every criminal case that moves through the judicial system has some bizarre details.

But in the case of the People v. Frank Carson and eight co-defendants, there is strangeness at nearly every turn, from the way authorities allege the crime was carried out to the arrest of law enforcement officers to claims the criminal defense attorney ran for office only to stall the investigation.

“When you add it all up, it’s a crazy case,” said professor Michael Vitiello, who specializes in criminal cases and court procedure at the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento.

Frank Carson is accused of orchestrating a criminal conspiracy that resulted in the March 2012 death of Korey Kauffman, 26, and a cover-up of his slaying. Carson’s wife, one of his former clients, two Turlock liquor store owners and a former California Highway Patrol officer are also charged with murder in Kauffman’s death. Three others face less serious felony charges in Kauffman’s death.

The law school professor says it’s hard to compare this case with others that involved bizarre circumstances, and there are plenty. He says these types of cases typically originate in smaller communities where there is a large consolidation of political power, resulting in outlandish behavior.

“There are a lot of other strange cases,” Vitiello said. “This one is truly an outlier.”

CHP OFFICERS ARRESTED

Authorities allege three CHP officers were involved in the Kauffman murder conspiracy. Walter Wesley Wells, now a former CHP officer, is charged with murder and conspiracy to obstruct justice. Authorities claim Wells arrived at the Pop-N-Cork liquor store in Turlock as two of his co-defendants buried Kauffman’s body outside.

Kauffman’s remains were found Aug. 19, 2013, in the Stanislaus National Forest in Mariposa County. Wells remains in custody in lieu of $10 million bail. Scott J. McFarlane and Eduardo Quintanar Jr., CHP officers placed on administrative as the investigation concluded, are charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice and being accessories.

Investigators say McFarlane was Kauffman’s neighbor, and McFarlane told some of his co-defendants that Kauffman was a thief and “had to go.” McFarlane and Quintanar are accused of helping co-defendants evade and disrupt the investigation, including searching their vehicles for tracking devices and discouraging potential witnesses from talking to police.

OUTLANDISH BEHAVIOR IN COURT

Chief Deputy District Attorney Marlisa Ferreira told a judge that Carson directed vulgar verbal attacks toward her as bailiffs ushered him out from his first courtroom appearance Aug. 18.

Carson, through his attorney, vehemently denied the prosecutor’s allegation. Socrates Peter Manoukian, a visiting judge from Santa Clara County, said he doesn’t know if the allegation is true, but he warned against such behavior from anyone in a courtroom, especially an attorney.

“It’s not going to happen again,” the judge told Carson. “You don’t talk to anyone like that, if you did it.” The judge said he wondered why anyone would bait the prosecution like that.

That wasn’t the only bizarre behavior discussed in court at the attorney’s bail hearing. In December 2011, Carson submitted a request to place a case on the court’s calendar and signed the form under penalty of perjury. Authorities say Carson wrote the following on the form: “(choose One) Def. forgot, couldn’t be bothered, dog ate docket paper, conspiracy of fate, car stolen, bus missed, bus stolen, lawyer’s fault, parent’s fault, I’m special, the Federal Reserve is unconstitutional.”

Manoukian said the antic showed Carson’s lack of respect for the court process. Carson’s attorney argued that this was just another example of how the prosecution has taken his client’s statements or actions out of context, telling the judge Carson filled out the form in a joking manner and no problems with the court resulted from it.

LIQUOR STORE HANGOUT FOR COPS

Testimony has revealed that the East Avenue Pop-N-Cork liquor store was a hangout spot for law enforcement officers, like Wells, who was there with his girlfriend, sister and brother-in-law on the night Kauffman was last seen alive.

Investigators say the off-duty cops would gather in an area at the rear of the business, drinking beers with the store owners and employees. Wells was at the store, grieving the death of a relative, on March 30, 2012. He and others left the store before Kauffman’s death occurred on Carson’s property, according to an investigator’s testimony. The prosecution claims the store owners sought out people with law enforcement ties who could help them and used those relationships to try to obstruct the justice system.

INVESTIGATOR FACING CONTEMPT CHARGE

Steve Jacobson, an investigator with the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office, was part of the task force investigating Kauffman’s death. Last month, Jacobson questioned defendant Robert Lee Woody, who is now cooperating with investigators after more than a year in jail charged with Kauffman’s death.

Woody gave Jacobson key details about Kauffman’s death, the burial of his body at the store and later dumping the young man’s remains in Stanislaus National Forest. An ongoing animosity between Jacobson and Carson is well documented in court. Carson is suing Jacobson and the county, seeking damages on a claim of battery. The attorney claims the investigator accosted him while he was photographing Jacobson.

The trial was scheduled to start Aug. 11 but was postponed and has not been rescheduled. In a separate case, Jacobson is accused of questioning an alternate juror while the jury deliberated in the trial of one of Carson’s clients. Chief Deputy District Attorney Dave Harris is accused of failing to promptly notify the court that Jacobson had improper contact with an alternate juror. The contempt case was put on hold pending an appellate court decision on whether Carson is allowed to participate in that court proceeding.

DEFENDANT TO SERVE AS CO-COUNSEL

Percy Martinez, Carson’s attorney, has informed the court that his client will serve as co-counsel in his own case. Manoukian said the defendant certainly has the right to serve as his own attorney and assist Martinez in the murder case.

Whether the court allows Carson to argue in court or question witnesses is still unclear. Prosecutors have filed a motion arguing that Carson has legally represented Woody and potential prosecution witnesses, which presents serious issues of conflict of interest.

BRAZEN THEFTS

Authorities say thefts continued at Carson’s property even after Carson and his alleged co-conspirators threatened suspected thieves – sometimes with deadly violence. Kauffman had left to burglarize Carson’s property hours after his life was threatened by suspects in his death, according to the prosecution.

The thefts on his 5-acre property in Turlock frustrated Carson over several years, even after authorities apprehended and prosecuted some theft suspects. Carson and some of his co-defendants were on constant watch of the property, yet the thefts continued.

Suspected thief Robert Jaquish told investigators he went onto Carson’s property because he knew others had stolen items from there. Jaquish claimed he was trapped in a chicken coop before he was confronted by an armed Carson. He said he escaped but didn’t call police.

RECRUITING CLIENTS

Patrick Hampton claims Carson recruited him to deal with thieves stealing from his property in exchange for his legal services and reduced bail costs. The attorney told the incarcerated inmate the thieves “had been thoroughly warned and they didn’t get it,” according to Jacobson’s testimony.

The alleged solicitation occurred in a jury deliberation room as Hampton waited for his hearing to begin. Hampton at the time was facing a probation violation and $100,000 bail. He told Jacobson that Carson secured him a sentence that would result in no additional jail time and $5,800 in bail costs, slightly more than the half of the 10 percent bail agents require. Hampton said he never fulfilled his end of the bargain and failed to show up for a meeting at Carson’s office, skipping bail instead and later serving a prison sentence for the probation violation.

WIRETAPPING

Carson spoke on the phone about the investigation, knowing authorities likely were secretly recording his conversations. The prosecution played some of those wiretapped conversations in court during the recent bail hearing, including one phone call where Carson’s wife asked her husband whether investigators had found any bodies while searching their property. Her attorney argued that his client asked that only because her husband had just told her investigators searched the property with cadaver-sniffing dogs.

“If cadaver dogs were on my property, I’d want to know if they’d found any bodies, too,” said defense attorney Tim Pori. The prosecution also played in court a phone call where Carson tells a bail agent that he filed paperwork to run for district attorney, saying his intent was to clean house. The prosecutor argued the phone call showed Carson launched a political campaign to get rid of top officials at the District Attorney’s Office.

“What’s wrong with that?” Manoukian responded. “That’s OK. Elections are good things, especially contested ones.” The judge’s comments were followed by laughter from some courtroom audience members who seemed to agree with him. Carson’s campaign included claims of corruption, saying District Attorney Birgit Fladager was overusing wiretapping in investigations that didn’t result in convictions.

OPENED STORE WHILE BODY BURIED

Woody told Jacobson that they took Kauffman’s body to the East Avenue liquor store, where Woody dug a 2-foot grave on the side of the business as Baljit Athwal stood as a lookout to make sure nobody saw them. Daljit Atwal then opened the store to avoid attracting suspicion, according to Jacobson.

Defense attorney Timothy Rien appeared skeptical in court when asking the investigator why someone would open a store while others were burying a body nearby.

ATTORNEY CONDUCTING SURVEILLANCE

On Jan. 2, 2012, a Turlock police officer responding to a report of a suspicious vehicle spotted Carson scrunched down in his green Toyota pickup, apparently trying to hide in the driver’s seat, according to the prosecution.

Carson told the officer he was watching his property because of the thefts. The officer found Carson in an area where he couldn’t see his property but he could see Michael Cooley’s home. Carson had suspected that Cooley, his neighbor, was burglarizing his property.

Investigators believe Carson was conducting surveillance at Cooley’s home regarding the thefts.

COURTHOUSE CONFRONTATION

In September 2005, Stanislaus Superior Court staff found Carson yelling and kicking at the courthouse front door. Carson said he needed to get into the courthouse, but he was told the courthouse was now closed. Carson was extremely upset, sweating heavily, red-faced and screaming, according to staff.

The attorney asked for a bailiff and had a “tug of war” at the door before Carson pushed the staffer into the lobby and out of his way. Another witness to the incident told investigators Carson looked like “a madman, or on drugs.”

A bailiff then arrived in the lobby, telling the staffers Carson was needed for a verdict announcement in a courtroom on the basement floor.

The Kauffman case returns to court Sept. 14.

Rosalio Ahumada: 209-578-2394, @ModBeeCourts

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