A friend of the victim who was killed in the first-degree murder case against Manuel Bustamante took the stand on Thursday and described what happened the night the victim was bludgeoned to death.
Christopher Solis testified that he had just returned to his apartment in the 2500 block of 15th Place that night from a party and saw Kendal Smith at a nearby bench on the premises drinking beer. He said while the friend he had been with went inside Smith's apartment and passed out in a back room, he went over to the bench to hang out with Smith.
Under questioning by prosecutor William Katz of the Yuma County Attorney's Office, Solis said he and Smith continued drinking because it was Kendal's birthday and that after a while they decided to go to the liquor store and get more to drink.
It was at that time, Solis said, they saw a man and a woman, who he later identified as Elsey Valenzuela and Manuel Bustamante, walk up to his neighbor's apartment, which belonged to Jose Hernandez Jr., and try to break open the screen door.
Solis said he recognized Valenzuela, who was sitting in the witness stand when he came into the courtroom to be sworn in, but had to be asked several times by Katz to stand up and point out Bustamante before reluctantly doing so.
Hernandez was Vanessa Bravo's boyfriend at the time, and according to previous testimony given during the trial, Valenzuela and Bustamante had come to the residence to retrieve some heroin they had given to her a couple of weeks earlier.
Solis stated that as he and Smith were driving out of the apartment complex they stopped in front of Hernandez's apartment and asked Valenzuela and Bustamante what they were doing there.
“We didn't go looking for a fight, we just confronted them,” Solis said. “They said they were looking for Vanessa, but I told them she didn't live there.”
After confronting Valenzuela and Bustamante, Solis said he and Smith drove back to his apartment and called Hernandez and informed him what had happened. While this was happening, he said, Valenzuela and Bustamante drove out of the parking and parked down the street, where they remained for about half an hour.
“They just stayed there staring at us,” Solis said.
Solis said after they left he and Smith finally went to the liquor store to get more to drink and when they got back they started drinking again, this time while standing out in front of Smith's apartment.
About 45 minutes later, Solis said he and Smith saw two groups of guys armed with bats and a gun come walking toward them from two different directions. When asked by Katz if he could identify any of the men Solis said he couldn't because it was too dark.
Solis said as the men were approaching he ran back inside of Smith's apartment and was trying to get Smith to come inside, but he wouldn't. Instead of going inside, Solis said, Smith started walking toward them.
Katz then asked Solis if he saw what happened to Smith, to which he said no, because he had ran out a back sliding glass door and tried to climb over a seven-foot-tall fence to get away. He said when he couldn't get over it, he just stood there.
“I didn't know what to do,” Solis said. “I was scared.”
Eventually Solis said he went back out to the front of Smith's apartment and found him laying against a grill on the ground, picked him up and drug him inside, where he placed him on his couch and called 911.
“I kept saying please don't die, please don't die,” Solis said.
Katz also questioned Solis about why he never told sheriff deputies, who questioned him several times, about what happened that night, to which he replied that he wasn't a snitch. Katz also asked him about whether he later told Hernandez that he saw a car parked behind the apartment with a girl standing beside it while he was trying to get over the fence. Solis denied he ever said that.
Solis also stated that he heard a gunshot and originally thought Smith had been shot.
Earlier in the day Valenzuela finished her testimony saying that after they left Hernandez's parent's house, where Bravo was living at the time, Bustamante and Jonathan Ochoa dropped her off at their residence on Hacienda Drive. She said Bustamante and Ochoa returned about half an hour later with several other people and they all smoked some methamphetamine.
Valenzuela also testified that after smoking the meth everybody left for several hours before Bustamante eventually returned at 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. She also said that he was wearing different clothes than the ones he was wearing when he left. At one point Valenzuela was admonished by the judge, who told her to stop looking and smiling at Bustamante.
In his opening remarks defense attorney John W. Erickson said one of the things the case against his client was based on was the testimony of drug dealers and criminals who would say anything to save themselves. During his cross examination of Valenzuela, he attempted to illustrate that point to the jury by questioning her about the plea agreement she got from prosecutors in return for her testimony in the case.
Erickson focused on the fact that for her role in the murder and a previous drug trafficking conviction in which she was on probation, Valenzuela was only sentenced to serve two and a half years in prison and a term of unsupervised probation.
Bustamante is accused of the April 18, 2012, murder of the 33-year-old Smith, He has been charged with two counts of first-degree murder, conspiracy to sell narcotics, conspiracy to commit armed robbery, transportation or importation of narcotics, possession of dangerous drugs and misconduct involving weapons.
James Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 539-6854. Find him on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/YSJamesGilbert or on Twitter @YSJamesGilbert.