Police officers, ex-girlfriend testify in murder trial
The capital murder trial for Preston Alton Strong continued Thursday with the two Yuma police officers who arrived on scene first and a detective who investigated the homicide all taking the stand.
Strong has been charged with two counts of first-degree murder, one count of kidnapping, one count of armed robbery, one count of burglary, two counts of aggravated assault and one count of attempted arson in the murder of the Yuma physician Dr. Satinder Gill nearly five years ago.
The 62-year-old Gill was found dead inside his home at 4596 W. La Quinta Loop on Nov. 2, 2007. He had been suffocated and had blunt-force trauma to his head. A large sum of money was missing.
Instead of a trial by jury, Strong has opted for a bench trial, which means Yuma Superior Court Judge John Nelson will return the verdict. Also, if Strong is found guilty, he could receive the death penalty. The trial, which resumes Tuesday morning, is expected to last nine weeks.
In his testimony, Sgt. Jeff Ruby, who was a homicide detective back in 2007, said he arrived on scene sometime between 11 p.m. and midnight. He said Gill's body had been found earlier by firefighters inside the bathroom of the home's master bedroom.
“I found a male that was hunching over a large tub with his head in the water,” Ruby answered when asked by prosecutor William Katz what he saw when he entered the bathroom.
Katz also asked Ruby if there was anything around Gill's neck at the time, to which Ruby said, “It was a leather belt and a cloth-robe type belt.”
Ruby also testified that Gill had been wearing a white sleeveless T-shirt and gray scrub pants when he was killed, and that there were ridges along the back of the T-shirt in a downward motion, which indicated that pressure had been applied to the shirt while Gill was in the position he was found in.
Also found in the bathroom was the power cord for a laptop computer and a belt buckle. “It appeared to go to the leather belt that had been wrapped around (Gill's) neck,” Ruby said.
Patrol Support Officer Beth Trabue, who testified earlier in the day, said she responded to the residence that evening to conduct a welfare check on Gill after family friend, Stephanie Baer, reported not being able to contact him.
“When we pulled up to the residence, she said she had a key and we could go in,” Trabue said. “It was strange because (Gill's) car was in the driveway. I noticed it was dark. There were no lights on, none at all, either inside or outside.”
Trabue said the family friend had told her that Gill had been acting strangely the previous day and had called her, asking her to come over and pick up a check for $24,000 that he had left under the doormat and cash it for him.
When Baer returned with the money, she said, Gill opened the door only enough to reach his hand out so she could give him the money.
Instead of going inside the residence, Trabue said she called for assistance and waited outside for back up, with Officer Jonathan Kemp responding to the call.
Kemp said while making his way slowly through the darkened home, with flashlight in hand, he was smelling what he thought was natural gas.
“The smell of gas was very strong and kept getting stronger. I was looking for a person on the ground who was in need of medical attention.”
Eventually, Kemp said, he made his way into the kitchen/dining room area where he noticed at least three lit candles. At that point, Kemp said he decided to go back outside and radio for additional assistance.
The Yuma Fire Department was called for the gas leak and ultimately extinguished candles and vented the gas out of the house. As firefighters were checking the house, they found Gill's body inside the home's master bedroom.
Thursday began with Strong's ex-girlfriend Adriana Guzman Ozuna concluding her testimony, saying that he had given her $9,500 in cash the same day Gill was found dead by Yuma police.
“I told her I thought Preston might have something to do with it,” Ozuna said when Katz asked what she told police in reference to Gill's death.
Ozuna, who paid for the majority of Strong's living expenses, further testified that the money Strong gave her was mostly all $100 bills, with only a few $50 bills in the stack. Police say the money dropped off to Gill by Baer was in $50 denominations.
The prosecution contends Strong, who claimed at one time to have tried out for the Detroit Lions, never had a steady job and owed many debts. As such, prosecution argued he had no means of acquiring such a substantial amount of money.
During its investigation YPD detectives confirmed that Strong was in possession of a large sum of money immediately after Gill's death. Detectives were able to track his movements immediately before and after Gill's death, but his whereabouts during the death are unknown at this time.
Investigators also believe that Gill was forced to make several phone calls to different individuals the day before his body was found.
Strong is also a suspect in the 2005 murders of six people at a La Mesa Street home.