At least eight times and as many as 10, police and prosecutors say, Jesus Gallegos stabbed and slashed Triston Ashley Salladay atop a stairway landing outside a Tahoe Park apartment, a fatal culmination to a disagreement that began over a stolen PlayStation video game.
Testimony in the murder trial of Gallegos, 23, began Thursday in Sacramento Superior Court, with neighbors describing Salladay's "blood-curdling" and "gut-wrenching" screams just before his life bled away amid the Valentine's Day violence of three years ago.
"I'm dying," one of them said Salladay told him, after the 23-year-old electrician had tumbled to the bottom of the stairway, suffering from the fatal wounds inflicted with a 9-inch butcher knife to his face, neck, back and chest. "He killed me."
Salladay had accused a friend of Gallegos of stealing the PlayStation, authorities said. One of the neighbor witnesses testified Thursday he heard the killer tell the victim during the Feb. 14, 2010, knife attack, "This is for my brother."
In the minutes before the 3:50 p.m. confrontation on the second-floor landing outside Salladay's place in the 3500 block of 53rd Street, his 9-year-old stepdaughter had been reading stories to a couple of younger neighborhood girls. Couples that had enjoyed the lover's holiday had nestled into their homes around a surrounding yard that four families shared, to watch television and relax.
The blood-soaked end came for Salladay almost nine years after he had been spared such a violent ending amid another episode of horrific violence.
On March 5, 2001, two students were killed and Salladay and 12 others were wounded when Charles Andrew Williams, then a 15-year-old freshman, opened fire at Santana High School in the San Diego County city of Santee. Williams has since been convicted and sentenced to 50-years-to-life in prison. At the time, it was the the nation's worst school shooting since the 1999 Columbine High School massacre outside of Denver.
Salladay's uncle, veteran California journalist Robert Salladay, wrote after the Santana High shooting that his nephew sustained a through-and-through wound to the chest that had just missed his heart. Robert Salladay attended the trial Thursday in front of Judge Steve White. He declined to comment.
In his opening statement to the jury, Deputy District Attorney Eric Kindall said Triston Salladay had voiced to friends and acquaintances his displeasure over the Christmastime burglary of his apartment that resulted in the loss of the PlayStation.
He had initially blamed the rip-off on a friend named Dean Viegas and argued with him about the theft the day before he died. Viegas testified Thursday he had occasionally visited Salladay's apartment to play video games and smoke marijuana. He insisted he had nothing to do with the PlayStation theft.
"He kind of accused a broad spectrum of people, a whole group of my friends and his friends," Viegas testified. "I went over there and told him, 'Don't talk about me like that, because that's not what I do.' "
Viegas said he brought a .22-caliber pistol along for the conversation, although he never pulled out the gun. He said he and Salladay "kind of resolved things."
In his testimony, Viegas told the jury he had known Gallegos almost all their lives and once had been best friends with the defendant.
Two days before the killing, Viegas told jurors he had seen Gallegos hanging out with another neighborhood acquaintance who dealt in stolen property and who at the time had been sending out text messages advertising his available merchandise.
None of the four neighbors who testified Thursday identified Gallegos as the man they saw fighting with Salladay, nor did any of them definitively pick him out of a photo lineup shown to them by detectives.
But they all offered a description of a thin Latino assailant in his late teens or early 20s who stood about 5 feet 5 or 5 feet 6 inches tall. The descriptions roughly matched Gallegos, who is listed at 5-foot-4 and 105 pounds.
Kindall told jurors that investigators recovered bloody clothing from a recycling bin about a block and a half away from Salladay's house, and that DNA tests on the fluids came back conclusively to the genotypes of both the victim and the defendant.
Gallegos' sister said he returned to their home in the 5400 block of Ninth Avenue a few hours after the stabbing. She told police he was wearing only his boxer shorts, although she couldn't remember making that statement when she took the stand Thursday. She did recall, though, that Gallegos had been in the process of shaving his hair when he came in through the back door.
The defendant's attorney, Assistant Public Defender Amy Rogers, told the jury in her opening statement, "to just watch carefully, listen very carefully, evaluate the evidence and you will find this is not a premeditated first-degree murder."
Kindall is expected to conclude his case when the trial resumes Monday.