The purported murder site sits behind a tall cyclone fence that surrounds a dusty patch of land littered with old vehicles, a rusted shipping container and a faded red double-decker bus.
Here in this makeshift junkyard of dust-covered farm equipment and antiques, authorities allege, a plot hatched by one of Modesto’s most prominent criminal defense lawyers resulted in the March 2012 slaying of Korey Kauffman, a 26-year-old scrap metal thief.
The property and its two modest homes on Ninth Street belong to attorney Frank Carson, 61, who now sits in a Stanislaus County jail cell fighting what may soon become a death penalty case.
The case made national headlines Aug. 14, when prosecutors announced charges against Carson and eight others – including three current and former California Highway Patrol officers – and released a 326-page arrest warrant affidavit laying out the claimed conspiracy.
Since then, two narratives have emerged.
One paints Carson as a man of rage who was “freaking out” about thefts from his property until he orchestrated Kauffman’s slaying, then ran unsuccessfully for district attorney of Stanislaus County in a bid to derail the investigation.
The other portrays him as a victim of incumbent District Attorney Birgit Fladager and the bare-knuckle feuds that permeate Modesto-area politics.
“It’s nonsense, fiction,” Carson supporter and former Modesto Mayor Carmen Sabatino said of the charges. “I can make a prediction here: Birgit Fladager is not going to get a conviction.
“There isn’t a jury – unless they’re able to try to fix one – that would convict him on the basis of what they have.”
For some, the case is simply the latest black eye for the Modesto area.
In past years, Modesto has drawn national attention and wall-to-wall cable coverage over the 2002 murder of Laci Peterson by her husband, Scott; the 2001 killing of congressional intern Chandra Levy in Washington, D.C., that unearthed allegations of an affair between the young woman and then-Modesto-area Rep. Gary Condit; and the (incorrect) FBI focus on Modesto criminals in the 1999 slayings of three Yosemite National Park tourists.
“Once again, the county and this city are going to be ridiculed,” Sabatino said. “I was the mayor during the Laci Peterson thing, and this is bad.
“It’s bad for Modesto, it’s bad for business.”
Sabatino, a restaurateur who served as mayor from 1999 to 2003 and is running for the post again, also brought scrutiny to his city after being charged with 10 felony counts in a corruption case in 2003.
Now 77, Sabatino rejected a plea deal that would have settled the matter for a $4,700 fine and a promise to stay out of politics, he said, and fought the case with Carson as his attorney. The jury was unable to agree on a verdict, and Fladager’s office declined to retry the case.
The bad blood between Carson and the District Attorney’s Office runs deep; he earned himself five contempt of court citations for his aggressive style in that case and has been a fierce critic of the DA.
His supporters say some of the conclusions laid out in the arrest warrant affidavit that led to the defendants’ arrests are painfully thin.
“It’s just bad science-fiction,” said Tim Pori, who is representing Carson’s wife, Georgia DeFilippo, against a murder charge in the case.
Pori, who has complained that his client has had to remain shackled even when meeting privately with him in the jail, said some of the allegations against DeFilippo, 63, are “nonsensical.” One comes from a June 2012 wiretap that recorded DeFilippo talking to her daughter, Christina, about how neighbors mowing the lawn had awakened the daughter.
“You want me to come and shoot them?” Georgia DeFilippo asks her daughter. “Are they still mowing the goddamn lawn?”
That intercepted conversation is cited in the arrest warrant affidavit.
“G. DeFilippo does not laugh at the statement and there is no joking type response from C. DeFilippo,” the document states. “Later in the conversation G. DeFilippo also states that they would ‘have to do something about them.’
“This is relevant to show the first response to problems at the property involved at least the threat of violence regarding issues with the neighbors.”
Christina DeFilippo, 36, was released from custody but faces charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice and being an accessory. She declined to comment when approached at the family’s Turlock home this week, breaking into tears when asked about her stepfather.
Fladager’s office says it will let the courts decide whether the case is fair.
“We review the evidence that is presented to us, and we file charges based upon what we think we can prove,” District Attorney’s Office spokesman John Goold said Friday. “Both sides deserve a fair trial, so we’ll reserve our comments on the facts for a courtroom.”
A tangled tale
The case has played out publicly for more than three years as multiple law enforcement agencies painstakingly investigated Kauffman’s death and zeroed in on Carson, a no-holds-barred lawyer who has had great success opposing prosecutors in court.
In addition to Carson and his wife, prosecutors have charged an assortment of people in the case: Carson’s stepdaughter, Christina; two brothers who own a pair of liquor stores; and the CHP officers. A ninth defendant is Robert Lee Woody, a Turlock man and former gofer for Carson and the liquor store owners who was arrested in March 2014 and now may be cooperating with investigators.
The tangled tale centers on a neighborhood about a mile from downtown Turlock, a city of approximately 70,000 people just off Highway 99 about 15 miles south of Modesto.
Turlock boasts a quaint downtown district of boutiques, brewpubs and restaurants, and is home to California State University, Stanislaus, as well as being the location of a former processing site for Japanese Americans interned in camps during World War II.
The city flourished as a result of its farmland and its status as a transportation hub, and its motto – “Water, Wheat, Railroad, Prosperity” – is carved into a statue of city founder John Mitchell in downtown’s tiny Central Park.
Less than a mile from there is the Pop-N-Cork, a liquor store and mini-mart owned since 2006 by Daljit “Dee” Atwal and Baljit “Bobby” Athwal, two brothers who spell their last names differently and who supporters say are active community members and fathers raising young children.
“They regularly volunteer and donate money, time and resources to local athletic teams and at-risk individuals in need of help,” according to a federal lawsuit they filed in February to stop “harassment and abuse” by investigators.
The brothers also befriended a number of area law-enforcement officers, including the three CHP officers charged in the case. Prosecutors and residents of the Pop-N-Cork neighborhood say officers frequently stopped by to grab a cold soda while on duty, and that officers frequently returned in civilian garb to hang out in a private room in the rear of the store.
“That’s the inside room, (with) a full blown-out bar in there,” said Robert Branco, 21, a former store employee and nephew of Robert Woody, the first person arrested in the case.
Branco said his family is in shock over the allegations laid out in the arrest warrant affidavit, saying “it’s all lies.”
He added that he is particularly confused over the allegations against the CHP officers, who are accused of trying to thwart the investigation and advising the brothers on how to detect tracking devices law enforcement might place on their vehicles.
“There wasn’t anything wrong with those cops. They were good people,” Branco said.
Clerks at the Pop-N-Cork, where 16 security cameras watch over the interior and exterior, wouldn’t discuss the case last week or allow a peek at the backroom, where prosecutors say one CHP officer was feted with a birthday party that was attended by the brothers and Robert Woody.
Woody, whose criminal history dates to at least 1995 in Stanislaus County and who has an arrest history that includes petty theft, domestic violence and driving on a suspended license, has become somewhat of a mystery man in the case. He has been charged separately from the other eight defendants and was moved out of the Stanislaus County jail for his own safety after the others were arrested, Sheriff Adam Christianson told The Modesto Bee.
Woody, whose nickname is “Five-0,” lived with his family in a small home three doors down from the Pop-N-Cork and was well-known in the area.
Two neighbors said in interviews last week that detectives returned to the store Aug. 15, one day after the other eight defendants were arrested, and that Woody was with them, wearing jail garb, and appeared to be directing the detectives around the area.
Of all of the defendants, Woody is the only one alleged to have said anything about killing Kauffman.
Prosecutors say Woody and Bobby Athwal drove by Kauffman’s home two days before he disappeared and threatened him, and the arrest warrant affidavit quotes a former Woody girlfriend, Miranda “Sunny” Dykes, as saying Woody told her he had killed Kauffman.
“Dykes said Woody told her he shot him, cut him into pieces, then fed him to the pigs,” the affidavit states. “Dykes said Woody never clarified what type of gun or cutting instrument was used to kill Kauffman or cut up his body.”
Woody later denied killing Kauffman, and the affidavit notes that he told family members a different story about what happened to the metal thief.
“In those statements, R. Woody has always maintained Baljit Atwal was the person who assaulted Kauffman and disposed of his body,” the affidavit states.
Authorities say Kauffman’s remains were found in August 2013 in a remote Mariposa County forest when hunters stumbled across his bones.
‘Give us Carson’
Since the arrests earlier this month, the Stanislaus County courthouse has been inundated with media and curiosity seekers who have filled the hallways and the courtroom.
But Carson and the other defendants, who have maintained their innocence throughout the investigation, have known for years they might face charges. The Pop-N-Cork brothers sued Fladager; the cities of Modesto, Turlock and Ceres; and several investigators in federal court earlier this year, claiming they were being harassed by authorities.
Among the claims in the suit is an allegation that police “terrorized” Bobby Athwal’s wife by falsely telling her he was “having sex with prostitutes” and that they ransacked his home.
The suit also claims police raided the Pop-N-Cork in 2014 and “desecrated a prayer room, including a religious shrine.” It does not specify if that room is the party room described by authorities.
“The Atwals were raided and harassed and their property was stolen,” Sabatino said. “(The police) kept saying, ‘Give us Carson, give us Carson.’ ”
Sabatino said Carson sold his luxury home in Modesto and moved into the Turlock property in anticipation of having to fight from jail. His disdain for the prosecutors was evident from his booking mug shot, Sabatino said, in which Carson is smiling broadly.
Carson, who has 71 cases pending as a defense attorney in Stanislaus County, is due back in court Tuesday and was seeking to be allowed to continue his defense practice while fighting the murder charge. The State Bar has filed an application to assume jurisdiction over his practice.
Despite the challenges Carson faces, Sabatino said he is confident about how the case will end.
“I have to tell you, Frank Carson is the best attorney in the valley, and he wins,” Sabatino said. “The DA knows that Frank Carson will go to trial, and he will not take a deal.”
Editor’s note: This story was changed Aug. 24 to correct information about the State Bar in relation to Carson’s law practice.