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Closing Arguments Begin in Trial for 2013 Suspected Gang Murder Near Santa Barbara High School

A murder trial that has lasted more than three months neared its end Friday, as attorneys began closing statements in the case of Kelly Hunt, a 21-year-old Ventura man who was shot to death near Santa Barbara High School on a rainy night in 2013.

On trial are Joseph Michael Castro of Santa Barbara​ and Issac Efren Jimenez of Ventura, who were arrested six months after the killing.

Both are charged with murder and are also charged with special circumstances that they committed the murder while an active participant in a criminal street gang and intentionally lying in wait to kill Hunt.

They are also charged with conspiracy to commit murder, which has a gang allegation attached, as well.

Hunt was gunned down the night of Feb. 19, 2013, in the 1000 block of Olive Street, a block west of the Santa Barbara High campus. He died later at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital.

Jimenez was arrested in Longview, Wash., by Longview police officers, who were assisted by Santa Barbara police detectives. Police had interviewed and photographed Jimenez nine days after Hunt was killed, but he was not charged at the time and he left the Central Coast shortly afterward.

SBPD detectives obtained a $1.1 million arrest warrant for Jimenez, and his Longview apartment was searched.

Kelly Hunt, a 21-year-old suspected gang member from Ventura, was shot to death on a rainy night in February 2013 on Olive Street, a block from Santa Barbara High School. Click to view larger
Kelly Hunt, a 21-year-old suspected gang member from Ventura, was shot to death on a rainy night in February 2013 on Olive Street, a block from Santa Barbara High School. (Santa Barbara Police Department photo)

Police and prosecutors have asserted that both Castro and Jimenez are involved in the Santa Barbara street gang, Eastside Krazies, and that Hunt was part of a rival Ventura gang.

Throughout the trial, conflicting information has come forward that Hunt was friends with the men but also had confrontations with them.

A motive for the killing is still unclear, and attorneys have suggested that it could have stemmed from personal disrespect from Hunt, a perception that Hunt was moving into Krazies territory or some other factor.

Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Brian Hill spent about an hour Friday morning going over a massive amount of jury instructions as jurors begin to ponder their verdict.

Prosecutor Kimberly Siegel then began her closing statements, telling the court that “Kelly Hunt was ambushed and blindsided.”

Hunt was shot four times from behind, and Castro and Jimenez were responsible, she said.

Both of the defendants intended to kill Hunt that night, she said, and had lured him to a dark street on the premise that the trio were going to steal a car together.

Police were dispatched to the Olive Street shooting scene, but no one was caught and a six-month investigation ensued.

Issac Efren Jimenez Click to view larger
Issac Efren Jimenez
Joseph Michael Castro Click to view larger
Joseph Michael Castro

Siegel displayed a timeline, stating that both Castro and Jimenez were involved with the Eastside Krazies gang as early as 2010.

She referred to a February 2013 Westside shooting near Kowalski Street, in which Castro was involved, and an incident in which Jimenez was “putting in work” for the Eastside gang.

The day before the murder, Castro said in Facebook message to a friend that “no one in SB is down to blast except me,” which Siegel said indicated his willingness to kill.

After Hunt was killed, police sought out Jimenez as a suspect, but his whereabouts remained an open question.

“He was on the run, I submit to you,” Siegel said to the jury.

Jimenez was ultimately arrested in Longview on Aug. 13, 2013.

Siegel said he lied to Santa Barbara police Detective Michael Claytor during the interview, saying he hadn’t seen Hunt in weeks. She added that Jimenez stated he was at his grandparents’ house the day of the murder.

A month later, Facebook messages were sent to Jimenez from Castro, sending “much love and respeKt going your way from all the K homies.”

“You don’t get that for doing nothing ... You get that when you’re down for the cause,” Siegel said.

Later, she said, Castro brandished Hunt’s gun, which did not have serial numbers and could not be traced. She said it was used in other crimes against rival gang members.

San Luis Obispo attorney Ilan Funke-Bilu, representing Jimenez, countered that someone who doesn’t intend to commit a crime is not part of a conspiracy.

Jimenez, he said, had no idea that Castro was going to kill Hunt, and fled to stay safe from the Eastside gang members.

Funke-Bilu said Jimenez left to go Sacramento, where he was starting his own gardening service, and was also working in Washington.

“If he knows about the homicide, he doesn’t want to be anywhere near,” he said. “There’s no credible evidence that my client did anything wrong other than communicate with Joseph Castro.”

Funke-Bilu pointed to Jimenez, sitting in a suit and wearing glasses, and described him as a weakling who could never have killed Hunt.

“Look at him, he’s just a nerd, he can’t do it on his own,” he said, adding that Castro and other members of the Krazies gang planned to kill Hunt, who was muscling in on their territory.

Deputy public defender Michael Hanley, who is representing Castro, took a different approach in his closing arguments, spending significant time explaining the burden of proof that jurors needed to meet to find his client guilty.

Jurors must find the defendants guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and “virtually all of the evidence in this case is circumstantial,” he said.

Hanley referred to the Facebook message that stated Castro was “down to blast,” and said it could have just been empty boasting or could refer to the Kowalski incident, not necessarily that he was ready to kill Hunt.

He said hours of police interrogation had led to a false confession of the crime from Castro.

Hanley painted Castro as someone who took the fall for Jimenez during an “accusatory interview,” which was “psychologically coercive,” he said.

Because gang members knew Castro was being questioned, his only way to not be accused of being “a rat” was to admit to everything, Hanley said.

Closing arguments will continue Monday, after which the jury will begin deliberations.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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