Crime - Sacto 911

Trial begins in ‘payback’ shooting at child’s birthday party in Natomas park

Kelly Thomas sits with his attorney, Greg Foster, left, prior to the start of opening arguments in the trial of three defendants accused of murder in the May 2014 shooting at a birthday party at Peregrine Park in Natomas that killed a man and wounded six other people, including a 7-year-old, Wednesday June 22, 2016, at the Sacramento County Courthouse.
Kelly Thomas sits with his attorney, Greg Foster, left, prior to the start of opening arguments in the trial of three defendants accused of murder in the May 2014 shooting at a birthday party at Peregrine Park in Natomas that killed a man and wounded six other people, including a 7-year-old, Wednesday June 22, 2016, at the Sacramento County Courthouse. lsterling@sacbee.com

The deadly May 2014 shooting at a 1-year-old’s birthday party in Natomas’ Peregrine Park that wounded six people and left a man dead was payback against rivals whom the alleged shooter thought wanted him killed, a Sacramento prosecutor said as the trial began Wednesday in the murder case.

Sacramento County Deputy District Attorney Eric Kindall began unspooling the case against Kelly Thomas, the first of three defendants facing murder and other charges in the May 10, 2014, shootings. Kindall will present his case against co-defendants Avery Hill and Orlando Rhinehart on Thursday and Monday, respectively.

Thomas’ attorney, Greg Foster, deferred his opening remarks, allowing Kindall to call witnesses in the case.

Thomas, 24; Hill, 24; and Rhinehart, 30, each face a murder charge and six counts of attempted murder in the park shootings.

Before the shootings, the party at Peregrine Park for Lawrence Smith’s young son was likely a bittersweet one. The elder Smith – known by his moniker M3 – had been found shot dead in his Sacramento-area apartment little more than a year earlier in April 2013.

Friends and family went all-out planning the birthday gathering, reserving the picnic grounds near a children’s play area, renting a bounce house and inviting dozens to the park.

About 50 people were at the party about 5 p.m. when semi-automatic gunfire rang out from the direction of the park’s basketball courts, Kindall said..

Two men armed with Uzi-style weapons opened fire on the crowd.

Photos prior to the violence at the park show the 1-year-old in the arms of one of Lawrence Smith’s friends. When the shooting stopped, six people, including a 7-year-old girl, were wounded. Jacoby James, 29, lay dead, shot in the back during the assault.

Investigators recovered 55 shell casings at the scene, Kindall said.

The birthday child escaped injury, but many who posed for the photo did not, Kindall said. Investigators said several people, part of a crew Kindall said coined themselves “New Money,” were among the intended targets.

Kindall cautioned jurors in the case before Sacramento Superior Court Judge Maryanne Gilliard that they will hear a variety of accounts of what happened and why.

Kindall also pointed to cellular phone records that he said show phone calls between friends Rhinehart and Hill before the park shooting and a recorded telephone conversation between Thomas and friend Aaron Potts, while Potts was jailed in Sacramento County custody, recounting an ambush shooting in February 2014 that targeted Thomas at his apartment complex.

In the recorded 15-minute phone conversation played for jurors, Thomas said he had a $100,000 bounty on his head, suspected the shooters were rivals who knew where he lived and that he recognized one of the gunmen in the ambush at his apartment. That man was later among the wounded at the Peregrine Park party, Kindall said.

Thomas and Rhinehart were arrested within days of each other in August 2014, Thomas in New York, Rhinehart at San Juan and Truxel roads. Hill was arrested in Las Vegas in September 2014 while in custody on other charges.

Darrell Smith: 916-321-1040, @dvaughnsmith

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