Two men charged with robbing the home of a former Capitol peace officer and kidnapping a guest from his house were found not guilty Tuesday by a Sacramento County jury in a case that exposed the inner workings of Senate operations and raised questions about its personnel practices.
The jury of seven women and five men acquitted Frank Trevizo and Francisco Merjil on all counts stemming from a December 2012 night of partying that turned deadly when a gunfight erupted outside the home of Gerardo Lopez, who was a sergeant-at-arms for the state Senate at the time and the son of a powerful Senate administrator.
Lopez’s version of what happened that night was not credible, said several jurors interviewed after the verdicts were announced. They said they believed Lopez lied to them on the witness stand – about his drug use, about where he stood when he fired his gun, about whether a kidnapping even happened that night – and that critical testimony from his Senate colleagues cemented their view that he was not credible.
Jurors also said the investigation seemed skewed from the beginning to frame Lopez as the victim – rather than a participant in a crime – and said he may have unfairly benefited from his peace officer status at the Capitol.
“Gerardo knows powerful people,” said a juror who did not want to be identified.
“He was the homeowner and … (police) just believed him right away. It seems like they shouldn’t have, and should have looked more at him.”
Assistant Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Grippi said police conducted the best investigation they could.
“There was no skewing of anything,” Grippi said in an interview after the verdict.
Lopez lost his job in May after The Sacramento Bee told Senate officials that court records showed he had tested positive for cocaine and marijuana the night he was involved in the off-duty shooting that left three people injured and one man dead. His boss, Chief Sergeant-at-Arms Tony Beard, stepped down days later. Lopez’s mother, Dina Hidalgo, the Senate’s longtime director of human resources, announced her retirement last month after employees complained that she used her position to help friends and family land jobs in the Capitol.
Through the course of the trial, defense attorneys Chet Templeton and Danny Brace subpoenaed Beard and several of Lopez’s Senate colleagues as they worked to discredit Lopez. The co-workers described an environment in the Capitol where Lopez was favored because of his mother’s clout, routinely facing no punishment for showing up late, leaving early and showing signs of being high on the job. They also testified that they didn’t trust him, that they thought he had stolen a knife from a Capitol lost-and-found, and that he once bragged about punching a woman in the face.
Jurors said those stories – along with a lack of evidence to prove a robbery – affirmed their belief that Lopez wasn’t truthful about what happened in the early morning hours of Dec. 22, 2012.
All parties agreed that the night that ended with Joseph Merjil lying dead in a cul-de-sac off Greenhaven Drive began with a birthday party at Brownies, a bar in South Land Park where Trevizo, Lopez and his wife, Jennifer Delao – who is a secretary in the state Senate – met up with some friends. Trevizo, who had served time in prison on assault charges and described himself to jurors as a drug addict, testified that he wanted to show off for his high school buddies so he came to the bar with more than $1,600 in his pocket.
Trevizo said he bought a bag of cocaine and several rounds of drinks as he flirted with a woman named Jessica Aguallo, a mutual friend of his and Lopez’s. Aguallo and Trevizo periodically stepped outside to snort cocaine in his truck, he told the jury.
As they sat in the pickup, Trevizo said he spotted Lopez walking out of the bar and called out: “I said, ‘We’re right here doing some coke. You want some?’ He said, ‘Heck yeah.’ ”
Lopez jumped in the truck, Trevizo said, and “takes a couple sniffs” of the cocaine.
It was an entirely different version of events than Lopez gave when he testified on the day the trial opened. Lopez said he didn’t knowingly do any cocaine that night. He said he smoked a marijuana blunt in the truck with Trevizo and Aguallo, that it tasted funny, and that he was surprised when a toxicology report showed he tested positive for cocaine.
As they all left the bar, Lopez said he and his wife invited Trevizo and Aguallo to come back to their house for a nightcap.
With the group of friends sitting around the kitchen island, Trevizo said he poured his cocaine onto a plate, took a $100 bill out of his pocket and rolled it up like a straw. For the next two hours, Trevizo said, everyone was snorting coke through his $100 bill.
Then the bill went missing, he said, and the whole night changed.
Trevizo said he asked Lopez and the others for his money, but they told him he never took out a $100 bill.
“I said, ‘I spent a lot of money on you guys at the bar.’ I said, ‘I spent a lot of money on this cocaine. I’ve been doing it with you all night, and you guys are going to steal from me?’ ” Trevizo said. “And they’re like, ‘You’re drunk… You don’t know what you’re talking about.’ ”
With his head spinning, Trevizo said he called his friend Joseph Merjil to come pick him up because he was too drunk and high to drive.
Brothers Joseph and Francisco Merjil walked into Lopez’s house with their faces covered with makeshift bandannas, the younger Merjil testified. His older brother Joseph waved a gun and demanded that Trevizo’s $100 bill be returned, Francisco Merjil said.
Prosecutors say the Merjils took cellphones, wallets and a bottle of Crown Royal before they left, and that Trevizo grabbed Aguallo and forced her out with him. Jurors said that other than the bottle of booze lying in the street next to Merjil’s body, there was no evidence Trevizo or Franciso Merjil stole anything. When detectives found a $100 bill lying outside in a pile of wet leaves, it was unclear who dropped it.
Lopez testified that he was afraid for Aguallo, so he got his gun and followed the intruders outside. Jurors said they thought Lopez made up the kidnapping story after he learned that Joseph Merjil had died in the ensuing exchange of gunfire.
No one faces charges for killing Joseph Merjil. Jurors said it was clear that Lopez killed him.
“We were surprised that Gerardo wasn’t charged with anything at all,” said a juror who did not want to be identified. “Once they shut the door to the house and locked it, that was pretty much the end. And it wasn’t until Gerardo decided to open up the door and come out shooting that things escalated to where people were shot.”
Prosecutors said Lopez was justified in shooting.
“The guy is at his home being invaded by people with masks and guns,” said Grippi, of the District Attorney’s Office. “You are entitled to protect your home and your property and your friends and yourself.”
Joseph Merjil’s wife stood outside the courtroom Tuesday, happy with the jury’s decisions and planning her next move. Esther Fabela-Merjil said she will meet with an attorney this week to discuss a wrongful-death lawsuit against Lopez.