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Prosecutors formally charge Modesto defense attorney and 7 others in Turlock man’s death

Judge Socrates Peter Manoukian presides over Tuesday’s hearing. Depicted from left are Chief Deputy District Attorney Marlisa Ferreira, district attorney’s spokesman John Goold, Martha Carlton-Magana representing Baljit Athwal, defendant Frank Carson and Carson’s attorney, Percy Martinez.
Judge Socrates Peter Manoukian presides over Tuesday’s hearing. Depicted from left are Chief Deputy District Attorney Marlisa Ferreira, district attorney’s spokesman John Goold, Martha Carlton-Magana representing Baljit Athwal, defendant Frank Carson and Carson’s attorney, Percy Martinez. lmcadam@modbee.com

Defense attorney Frank Carson has walked into Department 8 of Stanislaus Superior Court many times before to zealously defend his clients. On Tuesday afternoon, he entered the courtroom for the first time as a defendant wearing a red-and-white striped jail inmate jumpsuit and shackles restraining his wrists and ankles.

He shuffled his feet, wearing orange jail-issued sandals, as he walked into the courtroom. The prominent Modesto lawyer stopped for a moment, leaned over and quietly asked his attorney a question: “They didn’t allow my clothes?”

Percy Martinez, Carson’s attorney, answered, “No.” Apparently Carson had asked officials to allow him to wear his own clothes as he made his first courtroom appearance, charged with murder in the death of Korey Kauffman. The 26-year-old Turlock man’s body was found in Mariposa County a year and a half after he went missing.

A judge on Tuesday ordered Carson and four co-defendants accused of murder to remain in custody at the Stanislaus County jail without bail.

A special circumstance allegation makes the case eligible for the death penalty. Chief Deputy District Attorney Marlisa Ferreira told the judge that prosecutors next week should be able to say whether they will seek the death penalty against any of the defendants charged with murder.

Prosecutors on Tuesday filed a criminal complaint, listing eight defendants, including Carson, his wife, her daughter, a former California Highway Patrol officer, two CHP officers on administrative leave and two Turlock business owners.

A total of nine defendants have been charged in Kauffman’s death. Only five charged with murder appeared in court Tuesday. Three other defendants charged with less serious crimes were released on bail over the weekend. A ninth defendant is being prosecuted separately.

Judge Socrates Peter Manoukian scheduled the five defendants to return to court Aug. 25 to continue the arraignment. Tuesday’s hearing went on for more than an hour, with attorneys arguing about bail amounts, shackling of the defendants and the 326-page affidavit used to obtain arrest warrants in this case. The defendants have not entered a plea to the charges.

Manoukian, a visiting judge from Santa Clara County, presided over the hearing. An out-of-county judge will be needed to handle this case, because of Carson’s familiarity with local judges. The defense attorney is representing more than 70 clients in unrelated cases in this county alone.

The defendants sat in the jury box, while some of their attorneys sat behind them. The crowded courtroom was filled to capacity with court staff, attorneys, relatives of the victim and the defendants, news media and other spectators.

The prosecutor asked the judge to keep the defendants in custody without bail. Ferreira argued that the public’s safety is at risk if these defendants are released, saying there are numerous threats made against witnesses in this case.

The defense attorneys argued that they and the judge need time to read through the voluminous arrest affidavit before moving forward with a bail review hearing. Such a hearing could include testimony from investigators, who will be cross-examined by defense attorneys.

An arrest affidavit describes Carson, who last year ran for district attorney, as a vengeful property owner trying to send a message to people believed to be stealing scrap metal and antiques from his property in Turlock.

Tim Pori, an attorney representing Carson’s wife, said there was nothing in the “garbled” document that indicates his client’s culpability. He said it’s the longest affidavit for a Ramey arrest warrant he has ever seen in 18 years of practicing law.

“It reads like a bad science-fiction novel,” Pori said in the courthouse hallway. “It’s a bad mystery novel where nobody declared who dunnit.”

Mary Lynn Belsher, attorney for the daughter of Carson’s wife, criticized District Attorney Birgit Fladager, suggesting the case is a malicious prosecution against a defense attorney who has beaten Fladager’s prosecutors in court countless times.

“Why is she prosecuting innocent people?” Belsher asked after the hearing. “Who would arrest a man’s wife and his daughter?”

Carson’s wife, Georgia Geanette DeFilippo, faces charges of murder and conspiracy to obstruct justice. Her daughter, Christina Anne DeFilippo, is charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice and being an accessory. The daughter was released on bail Friday and is scheduled to appear in court Sept. 4.

John Goold, a District Attorney’s Office spokesman, spoke to reporters about the case.

“It’s unfortunate that a serious case like this has to involve such people,” Goold said outside the courthouse. “You take the evidence where it comes. You file the charges you deem are appropriate, and that’s the best you can do.”

Carson has been charged with murder, conspiracy to obstruct justice and perjury. The arrest affidavit describes a conspiracy with Carson as its ringleader.

Carson has said any suggestion he’s involved in Kauffman’s death is absurd. His attorney spoke to news reporters as he left the courthouse Tuesday, saying prosecutors waited three years to arrest Carson based on allegations listed in the affidavit, a lengthy document six attorneys on his defense team are still trying to decipher.

“Mr. Carson doesn’t feel we’re in a bad situation, and he’s going to be exonerated,” Martinez said after the hearing.

Authorities say Kauffman was known for “scrapping,” street slang for stealing metals to sell to recyclers. On the night of his disappearance, Kauffman left a friend’s home to steal irrigation pipes from Carson’s property, according to the affidavit.

Robert Lee Woody, who was the only defendant charged with Kauffman’s death until last week, is not listed in the criminal complaint. Authorities had not publicly identified those suspected of being Woody’s co-conspirators until last week.

Goold said Woody will be prosecuted separately, charged with his original criminal complaint. Prosecutors told Judge Manoukian on Tuesday that they had no plans to consolidate the cases.

Woody had been in custody at the jail since last year, but he is no longer listed in online custody records. Sheriff Adam Christianson said Tuesday that Woody was moved to an out-of-county facility for his safety after the arrests of the others accused in the case.

Authorities believe Kauffman was killed March 30, 2012, somewhere in the Turlock area and that his body was secretly transported to Mariposa County, where hunters discovered it in August 2013.

Baljit Athwal and his brother, Daljit Atwal, who spell their last names differently, are charged with murder and conspiracy to obstruct justice.

The brothers, who own the Pop-N-Cork Liquor stores in Turlock, have claimed repeated harassment by law enforcement officials involved in the Kauffman slaying investigation and organized protests outside the District Attorney’s Office in downtown Modesto. They also have filed a federal lawsuit against members of a local investigative task force looking into the slaying.

Martha Carlton-Magaña, Baljit Athwal’s attorney, said her client is innocent and has been caught in a web of “self-deluded” investigators and prosecutors fueled by their personal vendetta against Carson. She also said authorities have invented a circumstantial case based on claims from a few drug-addled thieves and felons.

“We are extremely disappointed that the district attorney has chosen to prosecute on such unworthy evidence,” Carlton-Magaña said in a written statement.

Prosecutors have charged former CHP officer Walter Wesley Wells with murder and conspiracy to obstruct justice. CHP Officers Scott J. McFarlane and Eduardo Quintanar Jr. are charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice and being an accessory. McFarlane and Quintanar were released on bail Friday and are scheduled to appear in court Sept. 14.

According to the affidavit, “the CHP officers involved in this investigation have all attempted to use the office of the California Highway Patrol to thwart the investigators’ attempts to interview them.”

Rosalio Ahumada: 209-578-2394, @ModBeeCourts

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