Testimony in a lengthy preliminary hearing begins Tuesday morning for a prominent Modesto criminal defense attorney and seven others charged in the death of Turlock resident Korey Kauffman.
Barbara Zuniga, a visiting judge from Contra Costa County assigned to the case, will determine whether there is enough evidence for the defendants to stand trial. The judge will base her ruling on testimony and arguments in the hearing, which was estimated to last about four weeks.
An investigative task force for three years gathered information about Kauffman’s disappearance and death. One suspect, Robert Lee Woody, was arrested in March of last year. In mid-August, authorities announced the arrests of the eight other defendants. What followed were claims of government misconduct by outraged supporters of the defendants, thousands of pages of court documents, outlandish courtroom antics and a news media frenzy.
Stanislaus Superior Court officials have moved the case a few blocks to a former federal bankruptcy courtroom in downtown Modesto. The leased courtroom provides more space for the large number of defendants, attorneys, court staff and bailiffs. Each day of the hearing, court officials will hand out a limited number of passes to members of the public who want to sit in the courtroom audience. Security is heightened.
Frank Carson is accused of having been the ringleader in a murder conspiracy. Authorities claim Carson, a prominent defense attorney, recruited a group of people to send a violent message to those stealing from him.
Carson has pleaded not guilty to charges of murder, conspiracy to obstruct justice and perjury, telling the judge, “The charges are absurd and stupid.”
Four others charged with murder and conspiracy to obstruct justice also have pleaded not guilty. Those defendants are: Georgia DeFilippo, Carson’s wife; Walter Wells, a former California Highway Patrol officer; and Baljit Athwal and Daljit Atwal, owners of the Pop-N-Cork liquor stores in Turlock.
Late last month, Judge Zuniga reduced bail from $10 million to $4.5 million for Carson’s wife. She has since bailed out of jail, while her husband and three others charged with murder remain in custody.
Three others have pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice and being an accessory in Kauffman’s death. Those defendants are Christina Anne DeFilippo, Carson’s stepdaughter; along with CHP officers Eduardo Quintanar Jr. and Scott J. McFarlane, who have been placed on administrative leave.
Each of the eight defense attorneys will have a chance to cross-examine prosecution witnesses after they answer questions from the prosecutor. Investigators are likely to testify, along with an expert on cellphone communications. It’s unclear whether the defense will call anyone to the witness stand to testify. The length of the hearing could be extended, depending on who testifies.
Woody also is charged with murder and conspiracy to obstruct justice in Kauffman’s death, but he is being prosecuted separately. Woody had been in custody for more than a year when he decided to cooperate with authorities after the eight other defendants were arrested Aug. 14.
Defense attorneys have said Woody gave investigators conflicting stories before his “last-minute revelation,” calling him a felon and a liar who at one point declared he shot Kauffman. If Woody is called to the witness stand by the prosecution, the defense will certainly challenge his credibility.
Woody was housed at the Stanislaus County jail, but he was moved to an undisclosed out-of-county facility after he gave investigators a new version of the circumstances surrounding Kauffman’s death.
Carson had been victimized by repeated thefts of antiques and scrap metal from his 5-acre property on Ninth Street in Turlock. Kauffman was last seen alive in late March 2012. He had left a friend’s home that night to steal from Carson’s property, authorities have said.
Woody told an investigator that he saw Baljit Athwal and Daljit Atwal in a scuffle with Kauffman, moments before he heard a gunshot. He turned and spotted the brothers standing over Kauffman’s motionless body. Woody said that they buried Kauffman in a 2-foot grave near the Pop-N-Cork liquor store on East Avenue.
The body remained buried there for nearly a month before the suspects learned of the investigation into the man’s disappearance and decided to move the body, Woody said. He told the investigator that they unearthed Kauffman’s body and loaded it onto Baljit Athwal’s pickup. He said they drove about two hours to a remote area in Mariposa County and left the body at the bottom of a ravine.
Kauffman’s remains were found there more than a year later.