Saturday, February 3, 2018

Going to Court: Suge Knight, Artyom Gasparyan's Alleged Crime Spree Prelim, Alleged MS-13 Gang Death Penalty Case & Michael Thomas Gargiulo

Thursday, February 1, 2018
Potential New Cases
I wasn't really planning on going into downtown LA on Thursday since there is a Gargiulo hearing on Friday. However, once I got the sales taxes paid and the DA's calendar for the next day showed up, I thought I would take a look. I just wanted to see if there was anything interesting. There were several cases downtown that piqued my interest. Suge Knight was on the calendar for two courtrooms. A week ago, I was talking about the Knight case with my writing partner Katie. I haven't really followed the Knight case so I didn't know if that was a typo on the calendar or if he really did have two cases trailing each other in different courtrooms. The last news article I read said the murder trial was scheduled for January 8, 2018, but here it was February and the case was still in pretrial hearings. 

Also on the calendar was a listing for "continuing defense testimony" in Judge Fidler's courtroom. I was surprised. I thought the death penalty case that started in late October was supposed to be finished in early January, making way for the Gargiulo case. But again, here it is February and the defense is still putting on testimony. It is a cold case murder and alleged MS-13 gang affiliation. There are four defendants.

There was a preliminary hearing in Dept. 41, Judge Villar, that piqued my interest because of the Deputy District Attorney assigned. It's John McKinney with the DA's Major Crimes Division. I had heard good things about DDA McKinney but had never met him or followed one of his cases. This might be a good time to drop in and see what his case was about.

Best Laid Plans
I didn't sleep well Wednesday night. I did wake up in plenty of time to get to court, but I felt so out of sorts I debated with myself for almost an hour on whether to go or not. I got a late start out the door and didn't make it into downtown LA until after 9:00 am. I arrived on the 9th floor around 9:15 am.

Suge Knight, Dept. 101 Judge Coen

Full disclosure. I know very little about the case other than Knight has gone through a slew of attorneys. He is charged with murder, attempted murder in one case (TA136401 ) and charged with robbery in another (SA089020). Those cases are in Dept. 101. Knight is also charged with making criminal threats (BA452832). That case is in Dept. 120, Judge Richman.

When I arrive in Dept. 101, there are few people in the gallery. I make sure the Sheriff's Deputy sitting right by the door sees my press badge as I quietly enter. I know there probably are victim family members in the gallery because I see a familiar face from the DA's victim support staff sitting with them. I take a seat in the gallery beside another reporter with a camera man. Siting at the far end of the long benches I recognize Associated Press reporter Brian Melley. Anytime Melley covers a case you can expect an excellent story. Here is his write-up on the hearing today.

By the tone I'm hearing from the bench, it appears Judge Coen has lost his patience with one of the attorneys at the counsel tables. I'm not sure who. Judge Coen is a formidable presence on the bench. (I was briefly in his courtroom back in 2013, when I wrote about Coen's famous file boxes.) At this point, I don't know who any of the defense counsel are. In the well along with other DA staff I see Asst. Head Deputy of Major Crimes, Craig Hum. It appears it's DDA Cynthia Barnes, who impatiently tosses back a piece of paper handed to her by the defense. After a bit of back and forth, the next pretrial hearing date is set at February 14. I hear from other reporters that a trial date has already been set for April 19. And that's it. People start to file out. I get the chance to say hello to DDA Hum in the hallway. He is kind enough to tell me that Knight's other case is in Dept. 120, on the 13th floor.

Suge Knight, Dept. 120 Judge Richman

The reporter in the gallery of Dept. 101 that I didn't recognize was LA Times reporter James Queally, who has written several pieces on the Knight case already. Queally remembers me, and I apologized to him that I didn't recognize him.

Judge Richman is on the bench. There are a bunch of people in the gallery. There is a DDA at the people's table. It's clear he is hearing pretrial hearings in other cases. DDA Barnes is in the well along with two other DDA's that were in Dept. 101. There is a small child, no more than 18 months or 2 years, sitting alone at the end of the third bench row.  I take a seat in this row a little ways to the left of the child. After awhile, a slender black man comes and sits beside the child. He's either the dad or the guardian.

Judge Richman calls a different case than Knight's. The defendant is the man with the very young child. He leaves the child on the bench alone in the gallery and takes a seat at the defense table. Judge Richman mentions the case is a residential burglary. There's a prior fire arms conviction. I miss the next several statements in the well because the young child is making noises while he's sitting alone. There are several women sitting behind the detectives on the other side of the aisle. They are trying to shush the noisy child. Judge Richman appears to be finished with this defendant when he asks the man, "I'll ask you the most important question. Eagles or Patriots?" The man tells the court "Eagles."

With this case over, Judge Richman banters with DDA Barnes in the well. In reference to one of the DDA's with her, he asks, "Why is he here? He look comfortable." The court asks for the parties in the Knight case. It isn't until after the hearing I learn that the DDA on this case is not Barnes but DDA Stefan Mrakich. I find that the older black attorney sitting in the well is Thaddeus Culpepper. The black female attorney sitting beside Knight at the defense table is Dominique Banos. Ms. Banos is an attractive black woman. She's wearing a very form fitting suit over her ample bosom. The white female attorney, Rena Wallenius, is there representing Ms. Banos. Mr. Culpepper sits in the gallery for a short time before taking a seat in the well behind Banos.

Judge Richman tells Banos, "I think I read your declaration." The court tells the press photographer he is welcome to remain. DDA Barnes tells the court that they just set the cases in Dept. 101 for February 14, calendar zero of 60 for pretrial. She tells the court the murder trial has been set for April 9, 10 for jury trial. The robbery case is also set for February 14, calendar at zero of 60. Judge Richman sets Knight's case in his courtroom for the same date at zero of 30. DDA Barnes suggests the court sets the calendar in Dept. 120 the same as Dept. 101 (zero of 60 as of 2/14).

Judge Richman responds. He appears to be giving DDA Barnes a bit of friendly banter. "Judge Coen doesn't report to anybody. Judge Coen is a grade five. I'm just a grade three. I have to report to people." Judge Richman sets Knight's case at zero of 30 for February 14 and orders the defendant back at 8:30 am. The setting of the case calendar is all that DDA Barnes is here for. She then hands the presentation over to DDA Mrakish who presents to the court their conflict of interest allegation regarding Ms. Banos. The court comments that there are lawyers for the lawyers here. DDA Mrakish tells the court that he doesn't have a lawyer here.

Ms. Wallenius interjects on the conflict of interest allegation by the people by telling the court, "I am not a potted plant! The people have not filed a motion [regarding the conflict of interest] ... or on the perjury matter."

DDA Mrakish outlines for the court that sometime prior, Knight's phone privileges at the jail were restricted. He was only allowed to call his attorney. There were no 3-wall calls allowed. Mrakish tells the court [I believe] about a phone call between Ms. Banos, Knight and someone with a production company. Knight used the booking number belonging to another inmate to make the call, after the phone restrictions were put in place. DDA Mrakish states there is a potential conflict of interest between Ms. Banos and Knight. He is here to get a waiver from the defendant.

While this is going on, Knight has spun around in his chair. For a while there, Knight was spinning his chair a bit from side to side. Now he's turned it completely around, facing away from the judge and is speaking to a deputy sheriff standing behind him. Judge Richman stops the proceedings to ask if Knight is paying attention to what is going on. Knight spins back around and faces the court.

DDA Mrakish tells the court the production company may be paying Ms. Banos's fee. It creates a specter of conflict. Mr. Knight  has a "... right to have conflict free counsel" DDA Mrakish argues. Judge Richman tells the parties, "I'm just a small piece of a tail on a really big dog here." The court addresses the defendant. "Do you want Ms. Banos to continue to represent you?" Knight adamantly tells the court, "I'm not making a waiver." The court patiently continues to address the defendant. "Assume what the DA says is true. Do you want Ms. Banos to continue to represent you?" Knight replies, "Yes."

Judge Richman states that they are done here. There is no signed waiver, just a verbal waiver from the defendant. There's only one other question the court asks Knight. "Patriots or Eagles?" Knight makes his choice. There are a few more off the cuff comments from the court, something about Judge Ryan. Then Judge Richman addresses the defendant again. "Do you know the song, Drowning on Dry Land?" Knight replies, "Yeah." If I recall correctly, the court tells the defendant the song reminds him of Knight. There are a few more statements by the court that I miss.

Ms. Wallenius interjects and addresses the court. "What she [DDA Barnes?] did in the last courtroom is reprehensible! ... The people are suggesting Ms. Banos has broken  the law! ... I'm asking the court to make a finding she has not broken the law." Ms. Wallenius continues to argue with the court. The court responds, "You're bordering on contempt." Ms. Wallenius appears to back down from that and tells the court that the DA has made an allegation. The court responds, "I've not made any finding nor have I assumed anything." Judge Richman has had enough and that's it for the Knight hearing. Out in the hallway I get the names and correct spelling for all the counsel in this hearing.

Dept. 106, Judge Fidler

I head back down to the 9th floor to see if the trial in Judge Fidler's courtroom has resumed. Peeking through the window in the door, I see there's no one in the courtroom. I then head to the 3rd floor for Dept. 41.

Dept. 41, Judge M. L. Villar - Artyom Gasparyan preliminary hearing

I quietly enter Dept. 41. I make sure the bailiff sees my press pass. The courtroom gallery is almost completely empty except, I see Terri Keith from City News. Terri is one of my favorite reporters. She has a tough job and she does it quite well. Terri gives me a smile and scoots over so I can take a seat beside her. I note that Judge M. L. Villar is a woman.

Summary: Artyom Gasparyan is charged with 32 counts stemming from a crime spree that began August 5, 2015 and ended with the defendant being shot and apprehended on January 4, 2016. Gasparyan is charged with murder, several counts of attempted murder, robbery, and other crimes. This appeared to be a one man crime bonanza. A total of eight victims were shot, one fatal.

The parties are at the tail end of the preliminary hearing where the court is making their ruling. I've missed the closing arguments for both sides. For the moment, all I see is the back of the defendant. He hair is jet black, past his shoulders. Although the defendant is in a wheelchair beside his attorney, I can see from his body movements that he isn't paralyzed. He's able to move his lower body quite well.  DDA John McKinney is at the prosecution table. He is a tall, handsome black man. By the end of the prelim, the DA's office amended their original complaint, removing two charges and adding three. The court is detailing the evidence that was presented by the people. There were 133 exhibits presented in the course of the prelim and numerous witnesses. Judge Villar mentions GeoTime® mapping is a game changer. Not only place, but routes, times and place. It's illustrative to the court but not persuasive to the court. The court continues with the other evidence admitted that connects the defendant to the charged crimes. The court states, "Nine millimeter casings at crime scenes; multiple witnesses identified the defendant and vehicle." Judge Villar adds that the GeoTime® mapping [indicates the defendant?] to have been at these locations. "The forensic evidence, more than sufficient that ... [the defendant] will be held to answer."

That's it. Judge Villar rules that sufficient evidence was presented for the defendant be bound over for trial. There will be a hearing in Dept. 100 (Master Calendar Court) in two weeks. That's probably for assignment to a courtroom. When the defendant is wheeled out, I can see that his right arm is wrapped and in a sling. I can't remember if it was before or after Judge Villar adjourned the hearing when she specifically addressed the detective(s) by name and complimented them on their work.

Outside in the hallway, Terri Keith asked DDA McKinney several questions about the case and I listen in. The defendant's vehicle was equipped with a stand alone Garmond GPS. In was mounted on the dash. The crime spree occurred in neighborhoods all over Los Angeles County. Los Felitz, Glendale, West Hollywood, Burbank, Harbor, Mission, Woodland Hills, Wilshire, and Carson were some of the locations of the crimes. The murder victim occurred in the inner city and the motive isn't clear. He encountered the defendant for a short period, just seconds. It's possible that the victim was in the defendant's way. From December 29th, 2015 to January 1, 2016, the defendant had a co-conspirator (Daniel Ramirez? spelling?). Once together, they stayed together in the vehicle. The co-conspirator killed two people and then shot himself.

I asked DDA McKinney how long he's been with the Major Crimes Division. He tells me since 2011. After the chat with DDA McKinney, I head back up to the 9th floor.

Dept. 106, Judge Fidler - Alleged MS-13 gang murder case; 4 defendants, 2 juries
When I step into Dept. 106, the gallery is empty. The only person in the well is Judge Fidler's clerk, Wendy. The case that started in late October has gone long. The DDA on the case is Dayan Mathai. DDA Mathai is also leading the big insurance fraud case against Kelly Soo Park and a slew of other defendants, also pending in Dept. 106. Lonce LaMon at has been posting detailed reports on the insurance fraud case pretrial hearings.

For the murder case, the parties are still in the case-in-chief. No penalty phase has started yet. There are four defendants and two juries. The victim is Jacqueline Piazza, 13, who was raped and murdered in June 2001. One jury is hearing the case against Jorge Palacios, 39. The other jury is hearing the case against Santos Grimaldi, 35, Melvin Sandoval, 38, and Rogelio Contreras, 40. Grimaldi and Sandoval are facing the death penalty. If either one is found guilty, there will be a trial to determine penalty.

Wendy tells me they are in the defense case for one of the defendants. The parties and court are hopeful to start closing arguments on February 20. There will be separate closings for the defendants.

I ask Wendy about the Michael Gargiulo case. She tells me the parties passed on being the next case up on Judge Fidler's calendar. After so many courtrooms in one day, I head back home.

Previous hearing on the Gargiulo case can be found HERE.

Next hearing on the Gargiulo case can be found HERE.