As the trial got under way Wednesday in Santa Barbara Superior Court, details slowly emerged about the brutal 2010 slaying of an Eastside store clerk, a crime that stunned the Santa Barbara community.
Three suspected gang members face murder charges in the case, but questions remain about what precipitated the attack on George Ied, 36, who was severely beaten in October 2010.
Ied, who was walking from his workplace, the Mi Fiesta Liquor store on Milpas Street, to his home on Punta Gorda Street when he was attacked, was left to die on the sidewalk.
Brothers Ismael and Miguel Parra, and Steven Santana and Michael Cardenas, were arrested in the case, and trial began Wednesday for the Parras and Cardenas.
They are facing charges of first-degree murder with gang enhancements and committing a crime to benefit a criminal street gang.
Santana pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and gang-related charges in 2011, and will be a witness for the prosecution at trial.
Santa Barbara police say that what prompted the attack is unknown, but they believe the four men — all with known gang affiliations — are responsible.
The Parra brothers had been released from prison for crimes uncovered during Operation Gator Roll, which occurred in 2007, and had returned to the community.
Opening statements in the trial began on Wednesday, and the courtroom scene was somewhat chaotic as each defendant relied on a different attorney to make statements and question each witness, two of whom relied on a Spanish interpreter.
Deputy District Attorney Hans Almgren is prosecuting the case. Defense attorneys on the case include Michael Hanley, who is representing Ismael Parra, Adam Pearlman who is representing Michael Cardenas, and Sam Eaton who is representing Miguel Parra.
Eaton was a last-minute substitution for attorney Doug Hayes, whose wife is in the hospital.
Almgren began opening statements by filling in details about who George Ied was before he was killed.
Raised in Zaidal, a small Christian village in Syria, Ied was part of a large family, Almgren told the jury, and had immigrated to America to work.
His native language was Arabic, but Ied eventually learned English well enough to work at Mi Fiesta Liquor Store on Milpas.
On the night of his death, Almgren said, Ied had worked until close, and had been walking back to his Lower Eastside home, and was talking to his brother on a cell phone when he was attacked.
While on the 1300 block of Punta Gorda, just a short distance from his home, Ied was beaten and suffered “extensive head trauma,” Almgren said.
Ied never regained consciousness, and his family decided to take him off life support a week later.
“His brain had been neurologically devastated,” Almgren said, adding that the county coroner, who will testify in the trial, listed his cause of death as cranial trauma.
As Almgren attempted to give a reason for the attack, he drew the attention back to the three defendants, who allegedly had been partying at the Parras’ home on the 1300 block of Punta Gorda.
The three men had been drinking heavily when they decided to make a beer run, and needed more money for alcohol when they approached Ied, Almgren said.
Cardenas was first, hitting the man with multiple blows, and the brothers “ran over to help their fellow gang member,” Almgren said. “How did they help? By repeatedly beating on Mr. Ied until he was unconscious.”
Almgren stated that Ismael Parra and Cardenas had already seen Ied at the Mi Fiesta Liquor Store earlier that evening to buy beer, and passed him as he was walking into the store, but no words were exchanged
At 11:30 p.m., Ismael and Cardenas and Santana go back to another liquor store at Salinas Street and Punta Gorda, where a camera captured Ismael punching an unidentified man a single time while the other two men watched.
Ismael and Santana were also seen flashing East Side gang signs in the video.
More drinking occurred when the trio arrived back at Punta Gorda, and Cardenas was the initiator in the beating of Ied, Almgren said.
Police who responded to the scene on a report of a man down discovered Ied’s body, but also saw smoke rising from the Parras’ yard.
They found a large fire in the backyard, where they discovered clothes and shoes burning in the barbecue, a deliberate attempt to destroy evidence, Almgren said.
Police also found Ied’s blood on Miguel Parra’s shorts and socks, and Ismael Parra’s and a sheet in the Parra’s home.
Santana was arrested the next day, and Cardenas on Oct. 16.
Almgren admitted to the jury that Santana had initially denied any involvement in the incident, but later admitted he was at the scene. A year later, he agreed to take a plea deal and testify.
A different story emerged when Hanley spoke, saying that Cardenas and Santana had been the instigators, and that Ismael would even testify before the jury to prove his innocence.
Hanley said that Ismael and Miguel had been down the street arguing about a family matter when the attack occurred.
Unlike Santana and Cardenas, Ismael “never became a full fledged gang member” but associated with gang members because “he needed to survive.”
Hanley described a man hesitant to get involved with gang life, who only got wrapped up in crime after he found out he would lose his home in Santa Paula in the housing crisis.
He resorted to dealing cocaine, Hanley said, mainly to people he knew from Santa Barbara’s East Side.
As a result, Parra was arrested in Gator Roll in 2008, and pleaded guilty, resulting in 23 months in federal prison.
Hanley said people wondered why he had such a short prison sentence, surmising that he must have been “a snitch.”
Upon his release, Parra was eager to keep his distance from the gang types in his neighborhood after moving back into his mother’s house on Punta Gorda, Hanley said.
In the confrontation with the man on the bike outside Mi Fiesta Liquor on Salinas, Hanley said, Parra felt helpless and “needed to save face” in front of Cardenas and Santana and punched the man in the fleshy part of his shoulder so as not hurt him.
Later, Parra saw Cardenas and Santana beating Ied, and in the course of rushing to help the victim “falls on the lower body of Mr. Ied,” Hanley said.
To save face, Hanley said, Parra “hits Ied in the lower extremities a few times to make it appear as if he’s with these guys,” then tells everyone to stop.
“That’s not murder,” he said.
Pearlman focused his efforts on attacking the credibility of Santana, who will most likely be the linchpin to Almgren’s argument.
“[Santana] has lied from the moment this case began,” Pearlman told the jury.
Originally, Santana denied ever seeing the assault at all, and denied he was a gang member.
Pearlman also pounded the Parras for “trying to get rid of evidence right in front of the cops noses.”
“They sent a smoke signal, that said, “Come arrest me,” he said.
Pearlman said that Ismael started the beating, and Cardenas had gotten him to stop. Pearlman also took issue with Almgren’s allegation that a bloody handprint found on a truck near Ied’s body was a match to Cardenas’ own.
Sam Eaton’s statements for Miguel Parra were the most succinct, most likely due to an abundance of caution having just been assigned the case, and he admonished the jury members to “use your common sense” in coming to a verdict about the night.
Three witnesses were called on Wednesay, including two workers at Mi Fiesta Liquor on Salinas, both of whom identified Ismael Parra, Santana and Cardenas as having coming into the store earlier that night.
Both identified Ismael Parra as the one who threw the punch at the unidentified man.
Sgt. Kenneth Kushner, who was a detective on the scene that night, and later arrested Cardenas personally, also testified.
Kushner described finding a shoe tread in the barbecue that night, and also recalled asking for surveillance video from both liquor stores as part of the investigation.
Video evidence from the Milpas store showed Ismael’s vehicle pulling up, and Cardenas and Ismael exiting. Cardenas entered the store, bought an 18-pack of beer and walked out.
The victim is shown coming into the store shortly after, and walking past Cardenas.
“I couldn’t see any interaction, verbal or non-verbal, they just simply walked past each other,” Kushner said.
Because the timestamp on the video wasn’t correct, Judge Brian Hill asked Almgren to give more foundation, and the video was eventually admitted as evidence.
The trial is scheduled to resume at 9 a.m. Thursday.