Jeff Jardine

Murder case has many layers, back stories

Officers are on scene at the home of defense attorney Frank Carson on Ninth Street in Turlock, Calif., on Friday.
Officers are on scene at the home of defense attorney Frank Carson on Ninth Street in Turlock, Calif., on Friday.

Scott Peterson. The Yosemite tourists. Doug Porter.

Indeed, the Valley has been home to, or linked to, some high-profile and horrific murder cases over the past couple of decades. But none of those offered the numerous layers and back stories like the affidavit released Friday. Authorities accused longtime Modesto attorney Frank Carson and eight others – including three California Highway Patrol officers and an alleged bigamist – in the case involving the 2012 killing of Korey Kauffman.

Carson, his wife, Georgia Geanette DeFilippo, two Turlock business owners, one of the CHP officers and Robert Lee Woody all are held on suspicion of first-degree murder, lying in wait, firearm enhancement, conspiracy and false imprisonment. The other three, including Carson’s stepdaughter, face conspiracy charges.

Lots of layers, indeed. Think of it as a big, red onion of a case. As soon as Tuesday, formal and more detailed charges could be filed in Stanislaus County Superior Court.

Understand that Carson is a criminal defense attorney with a history of successes in the courtroom and tormenting everyone from the police to prosecutors to even judges in the process. He revels in putting those supposedly on the offensive on the defensive. He’s excellent at playing to a jury.

During a pretrial hearing in a 2013 case, Carson engaged in a yelling match with Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Linda McFadden. He called her actions unprofessional and said he would try to have her removed from the case. McFadden fined him $200.

Last December, Carson got an acquittal for a bail bondsman client in a conspiracy case. Then he pursued contempt-of-court charges against Chief Deputy District Attorney Dave Harris and investigator Steve Jacobson, alleging improper contact with a juror during deliberations. (That case has been suspended pending a state appellate court ruling.)

He also challenged incumbent District Attorney Birgit Fladager last year, losing the election badly. Or did he? You see, beyond his boisterous and often boorish demeanor, Carson is very smart and very calculated. His antics generally have a purpose, although you wonder about the wisdom of smiling in the booking mugshot, as Carson did last week. He looked like he’d just won the lottery on a borrowed $1 bill. No matter. Carson no doubt set out to do what he always does: rile the prosecution, laughing at them and their charges. Only this time, he’s the defendant.

In 2012, long before he filed to run for DA, authorities searched Carson’s property in Turlock while investigating the Kauffman killing. His attorney, Percy Martinez, told The Modesto Bee they had been expecting charges for a very long time. You might speculate that by running for DA, Carson could make the impending murder case – and those in the DA’s office who filed it – go away if he won. If he lost, which he did, was he really laying the groundwork for his defense against the charges? I suspect he’ll contend that he’s simply been a burr in the prosecutors’ collective backside for far too long, and they’d do anything to get him out of the way. Which if true, by the way, would be prosecutorial misconduct, which he’s already accused Harris and Jacobson of anyway. For certain, he’s consistent.

But a murder charge? The 326-page arrest warrant accuses Carson of masterminding the killing of Kauffman, who according to the document was a known metal thief and stole irrigation piping from Carson’s property. Carson allegedly assigned three men – Woody, Daljit Atwal and Baljit Athwal – to guard his place and “make an example out of anyone who trespassed.” Carson had been Baljit Athwal’s attorney in criminal and civil cases in 2008.

Kauffman’s body was found in Mariposa County in August 2013. Authorities arrested Woody more than a year before the others, charging him with the murder in March 2014. And Baljit Athwal’s cellphone records indicate his phone linked to a tower in that county three months after Kauffman died, the court filing stated.

Named more than a year ago as “persons of interest” in the murder case, brothers Atwal and Athwal (they spell their last names differently) went on the attack by filing a federal lawsuit against the local authorities, claiming that investigators repeatedly harassed them. They organized a protest in front of the District Attorney’s Office in downtown Modesto.

That generated another layer in this quagmire. When his name surfaced in a story online, Baljit Athwal’s wife in India saw it and contacted authorities here. According to the affidavit, she told them she is still legally married to Athwal in India while he is married to another woman in the United States. The wife in India claims he forged her signature on divorce documents filed in the U.S., and that their marriage is still recognized in India. That suggests he’s married to two different women at the same time. She also told investigators there are three warrants for Athwal’s arrest in India.

Of the three CHP officers, one – Walter Westley Wells – is charged with murder and conspiracy while the other two, Scott McFarlane and Eduardo Quintanar Jr., are charged with conspiracy. Conspiracy cases are difficult to prove. The prosecution was unable to convict Carson’s bail bondsman client, Aleo John Pontillo, in a criminal conspiracy case that ended in December.

They are difficult to prove because they tend to be complex, pitting defendant against defendant and compelling the jury to pick one.

None may prove to be more complex than this one. So many layers, so many back stories. Stay tuned.