Christopher Nicholas Strong had a lot of work to do last week, denying key aspects of the prosecution’s case that put him in the middle of the residential robbery and shooting where a 7-month-old baby and the infant’s father were killed.
Surgery from a sports injury, he testified, explained the hole in his left knee that the DA says resulted from Strong being shot by co-defendant Donald Ortez-Lucero on Sept. 14, 2007, during the attempted ripoff of a south-side drug dealer’s house.
A former girlfriend testified during trial that Strong told her he’d been shot. Strong confirmed the statement, but he told a Sacramento Superior Court jury the woman “misspoke” when it came to describing exactly what kind of shooting he was talking about. “We were paintballing,” he testified.
The same former girlfriend told jurors she took him to the drug house before the killing to give her friend a ride – a piece of evidence against Strong meant to establish his personal awareness about the Country Greens Court location of the killing, as well as his knowledge that it was a dope house that moved a lot of cash. He explained that he never actually went to the house and didn’t know precisely where it was because they picked the friend up around the corner from the place where Sean Aquitania, 21, and his baby son were killed.
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Defense attorneys completed their cases on Monday in the trial into the shooting deaths of the Aquitanias. Prosecutors say the two were killed when they drove up to the Country Greens Court residence when Strong and Ortez-Lucero had arrived to rob the place. Closing arguments are scheduled to begin Wednesday.
According to the prosecution’s theory, Ortez-Lucero, 29, pistol-whipped Aquitania outside the drug house and used him to get inside. During the beating, Ortez-Lucero’s gun discharged and a bullet struck the baby in the head and killed him, Deputy District Attorney Eric Kindall said in his opening statement. Ortez-Lucero then shot and killed the enraged Aquitania inside the house when the father, who had been let out to check on his son, ran back inside and attacked the robbers when he saw that his baby had been shot, prosecutors said.
Charles Bourdon and Ruth Edelstein, the attorneys for Ortez-Lucero, who did not take the witness stand, rested their cases last week. Donald Masuda, who is representing Strong, concluded his evidence on Monday. Kindall is expected to conclude his rebuttal case Tuesday before the lawyers finalize jury instructions with Judge Patrick Marlette.
Speaking slowly and softly during his testimony last week, Strong, 30, wearing a lime green vest, offered the jury a calm and measured presence that differed strikingly from the image of him presented in the testimony of witnesses who were inside the drug house at the time of the home invasion. They said that one of the robbers – identified by the prosecution as Strong – barged inside with his pistol drawn, demanding money and not hesitating to smash anybody over the head with the weapon who did not cooperate with the intruders’ hunt for cash.
When Aquitania kicked his way inside after the horrifying discovery of his son’s injury, he went after Strong and knocked the gun out of his hand, according to the prosecution, and it was Strong who then yelled to his partner, “Shoot him,” Kindall said in his opening statement. The prosecutor said Strong was struck in the knee by a bullet that passed through Sean Aquitania Sr.
In his testimony last week, Strong denied under questioning from Masuda that he was on Country Greens Court the day of the killings, and he further said he had nothing to do with the deaths of the Aquitanias.
“Never,” he said. “I was never with anybody committing a home invasion in 2007.” As for his leg, “I have never had a gunshot wound, never.”
At the time of the killing, Strong was living with Ortez-Lucero in a two-story house his boyhood friend was buying in a new development on West River Drive in North Natomas. The two are Bay Area natives and each has a tattoo that says “Death Before Dishonor,” Strong confirmed.
“We consider ourselves brothers,” Strong testified.
Strong said Ortez-Lucero had saved money to buy the house and that he was working a couple of side jobs to maintain it during the late summer of 2007, but that it was getting more and more difficult as the financial terms of his mortgage payment skyrocketed and the specter of foreclosure crept into the picture.
“The interest rate was flexible,” Strong said. “It went up a point every month. (Payments) started at $2,500, and when it went up to $4,000, he let it go.”
As for himself, Strong testified that at 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds, he hoped to work on his football career, and he had moved in with Ortez-Lucero from his mother’s house in Millbrae to enroll in a summer conditioning program at American River College. He learned just before fall practices began that he was not academically eligible to play on the team, Strong testified.
He said Ortez-Lucero threw his house open to big parties, and that a friend who attended them – Richard Noguera – eventually moved in. It was Noguera who testified earlier in the trial that he was at the West River Drive house the day of the killing when the two defendants came home and told them what happened on Country Greens Court, with Strong’s leg bleeding from a gunshot wound.
Defense attorneys have contended it was Noguera who was responsible for the killings. Last week, Ortez-Lucero’s attorney called a convicted child molester to testify that when he was in jail awaiting his own trial, Noguera told him about his role in the fatal home invasion, that he had hooked up with as many as eight other participants to pull off the robbery. Noguera already has testified that he had falsely bragged about having done the shootings.
The witness, Frank Dearwester, 41, came up from California State Prison, Los Angeles, where he is serving a 32-year sentence. He startled the court when he started reading a statement in front of the jury that during a stopover at Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy on the way up from Southern California, he got phone call from a man who identified himself as working for the DA’s office. Dearwester said the caller said he would be shot and killed on his way home to prison if he didn’t cooperate with the prosecution.
Judge Marlette then stopped the proceedings and ordered that Dearwester’s testimony be videotaped out of the presence of the jury. The prosecution and defense attorneys plan to edit the videotape before putting it into evidence.