Photos | CDCR and Zboralski, licensed under Creative Commons
By Joe Livernois
Daniel Covarrubias beat death row a couple of years ago. Now he is asking the criminal justice system to release him from prison.
From the day he was arrested almost 25 years ago, Covarrubias has insisted that he never killed anyone during one of the most grisly massacres in recent Monterey County history. He doesn’t dispute that he was among the intruders who forced their way into an East Salinas apartment on Nov. 16, 1994. But even after a jury found him guilty and sentenced him to death for his part in the murders, he said he never fired a shot and that prosecutors trumped up evidence to convict him.
In a petition filed in Superior Court by Covarrubias’ attorney Gary Dubcoff of San Francisco seeking a retrial or outright release from prison, he also asserts that Salinas police officers and the District Attorney’s office engaged in a criminal conspiracy to kidnap Covarrubias in Mexicali and that they lied and covered up their criminal conduct to railroad Covarrubias’s prosecution.
According to Dubcoff, the official misconduct that ended in his capture and his prosecution “rose to a level rarely seen. Committing felony offenses themselves, lying under oath, presenting perjured testimony, failing to disclose favorable information, spoliating evidence — it is all here.” He also claims that the most damning testimony by a “star witness” was coerced by an eager detective and an ambitious prosecutor.
In response, Monterey County Deputy District Attorney Glenn Pesenhofer argued Covarrubias’ attorney has not proven that the misconduct actually occurred and concluded that Covarrubias “received a fair trial and was not prejudiced by the asserted errors, whether considered individually or cumulatively.”
Killed that night were Ramon Morales, his wife Martha and her brother, Fernando Martinez. The Morales’s 11-month-old daughter was also shot multiple times but survived her physical wounds.
Covarrubias, now 52, was convicted of first-degree murder by a Monterey County jury on Oct. 27, 1998. He was sentenced to the death penalty. But in 2016 the Supreme Court expunged his death sentence after determining that the judge erroneously excused a prospective juror. The Supreme Court sent the case back to Superior Court for a new penalty determination, but then-District Attorney Dean Flippo decided not to seek the death penalty again, citing difficulties in locating key witnesses and the wishes of surviving family. Covarrubias is now serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
An out-of-county judge this month issued a preliminary ruling to reject Covarrubias’ petition, but has given Covarrubias’ attorney time to persuade her otherwise and to allow a full hearing on the evidence.
According to court records and trial testimony, Daniel Covarrubias was living in Southern California in 1994 but drove to Salinas on Nov. 11 to visit his sister, Bertha Sanchez. Joining him on the trip were Antonio Sanchez and Joaquin Nunez.
Five days later Sanchez, Nunez and Covarrubias were hanging out with a friend, a 16-year-old named Jose Luis Ramirez, playing dominoes and drinking beer. In the afternoon, the four of them drove to a nearby trailer park so that Sanchez could collect on a $100 debt. After picking up their money, they drove to a gun shop, where Sanchez purchased ammunition and a high-capacity magazine that would fit an AR-15 semiautomatic assault rifle.
Covarrubias then drove the group to a couple of other friends’ homes, but they were asked to leave when occupants saw their guns and ammunition. By around 7 in the evening, they were all sitting in the car in front of Bertha Sanchez’s house, drinking beer. Bertha Sanchez chased them away, admonishing her brother for driving while he was drunk.
Covarrubias then drove the group out to the foothills east of Salinas. At one point, Antonio Sanchez started talking about shooting Ramon Morales because of a dispute over money. Sanchez and Nunez had been selling cocaine for Morales, and Sanchez apparently thought Morales owed him money.
Covarrubias stopped the car off the side of a rural road, opened the trunk and the men loaded up their weapons with the ammunition they had purchased earlier. They then drove around the countryside, shooting their weapons into the air.
Covarrubias drove back to Salinas and they eventually ended up at the Morales home, a converted garage on East Market Street, around 9 p.m..
Covarrubias knocked on the door, and he walked in when no one answered. Armed with a knife, he encountered Martinez, who was sleeping on a couch. He held a knife to Martinez’ throat. At the time, Martinez was the only person in the house. While Covarrubias held Martinez, the other intruders ransacked the home and transported items of value into the car.
Ramirez soon alerted the intruders that the Morales couple had pulled up in their car and were about to come into the apartment. Nunez hid behind the door while Covarrubias herded Martinez into the bedroom. Sanchez and Ramirez hid behind a refrigerator in the kitchen.
When the couple entered the house with their baby, Nunez escorted Martha Morales and her daughter into the bedroom by gunpoint, according to testimony. Ramon Morales was ordered to kneel down while a gun was pointed at him. The intruders demanded money, drugs and guns. At some point, Morales told Sanchez that he had $5,000 in the bank and that his brother had the drugs. A box with two .38 caliber handguns was found in the apartment. Whether one of the guns ended up in Covarrubias’ hand is a point of contention; he claims he never had a gun but jurors were told that he did by prosecution witnesses.
As Ramon Morales begged for his life in the living room, Ramirez said he heard what sounded like gunshots coming from the bedroom. Ramirez fled, but he and a neighbor testified that they heard volleys of shots from within. The neighbor said that she could see gun smoke coming through the opened front door. She then saw the intruders, including Covarrubias, flee the apartment.
Later that night, Covarrubias showed up at his sister’s house and borrowed $50 from her. It was money he used for gas to flee to Mexicali.
Police arrived soon after the massacre. Gun smoke still lingered. Blood was splattered everywhere. A baby cried from another room. A search turned up spent bullets, boxes with unused ammunition, a cash box, a bit of hashish, a .380 caliber pistol, a Taser gun and a box of disposable diapers. Covarrubias’ fingerprints were found on both boxes of ammunition and the box of diapers. Outside, in a chicken coop, investigators found a triple-beam scale. When investigators returned to the scene a month later, they found two more .380-caliber pistols in the bedroom and a .22-caliber rifle in the chicken coop.
The baby was treated at a local hospital emergency room. Doctors treated a gunshot wound to her shoulder and four other wounds to her leg that were caused by a single bullet.
Autopsies determined that Martinez was shot twice, once in the back of the head, execution style, and at point-blank range, and once in his back; Ramon died from multiple gunshot wounds, including to his face and to his lower chest that “virtually tore his heart to pieces.” Martha suffered two fatal gunshot wounds to her forehead that left “her face torn away by the blast of the gunshots and in front of the skull.”
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times a year after the shootings, then-Salinas Police Chief Dan Nelson called the murder “one of the most grisly things I’ve seen in 30 years of law enforcement. It was a dastardly murder. There were heads blown up like watermelons.”
Covarrubias laid low in his brother’s house in Mexicali for seven months. Then, on July 28, 1995, four strangers showed up at the front door with two Mexican federal police officers. A chase ensued. They eventually subdued Covarrubias, cuffed him and hustled him into the bounty hunters’ vehicle.
During the struggle, Covarrubias sustained a head injury, and his face was still bloody when the group tried to cross the border back into the United States.
At the border station at Calexico, the blood aroused the suspicion of a border patrol agent. They pulled the car from line and questioned the men. It turned out that the four were bounty hunters from the Salinas area and the bleeding man was the man they captured. The bounty hunters — Dean Douglas Espinosa, Edward Anguiano, Jason Eugene Wilson and Joe Navarro — were arrested and charged with kidnapping.
An FBI special agent investigating the matter determined that the bounty hunters did indeed kidnap Covarrubias in violation of U.S. and Mexican laws, not to mention U.S.-Mexico treaties. All four were convicted felons and one of them, Wilson, was a convicted felon in possession of a firearm who had crossed into Mexico with a concealed weapon. The FBI agent also determined that the quartet intended to bribe a Mexican federal judicial police officer.
Meanwhile, U.S. authorities kept Covarrubias in custody at the border until he could be returned to Monterey County.
As the investigation continued, it became increasingly evident that the four bounty hunters were likely doing the bidding of Salinas police detectives who apparently knew where Covarrubias was, but were unable to arrest and extradite him as sworn officers of the law as long as he was living in Mexico.
According to court documents, detective Timothy McLaughlin and John Gates visited Espinosa and Anguiano at their place of employment, Tony and Frank Diaz Bail Bonds in Salinas. The two later told investigators that the detectives urged them to get Covarrubias back to the United States by August. During subsequent meetings, McLaughlin and Gates allegedly told the bounty hunters that they had secured the promise of cash from the victims’ family to pay for the abduction. The detectives continued to communicate with the bounty hunters numerous times to help prepare them for their trip to Mexico, providing copies of arrest warrants, photographs of the suspect, and location information, according to the documents.
Throughout the preparations, the Salinas detectives continued to communicate with the Monterey County District Attorney’s office. At times they sought reassurances that the abduction wouldn’t impact the prosecution of the case. As prosecutors learned what the detectives intended to do to catch Covarrubias, they told McLaughlin and Gates that they would not underwrite the cost of the venture. At one point, according to court documents, Deputy District Attorney Carolyn Keeley told the detectives that she had sought the counsel of an international relations expert who told her that the murder case wouldn’t be jeopardized “even if one of the fugitives were apprehended illegally.”
The prosecuting attorney in the case, Deputy District Attorney Julie Lombardo, was aware of plans to abduct Covarrubias with bounty hunters in Mexico, according to the petition Covarrubias filed to reverse his conviction. Lombardo, who changed her name back to Julie Culver after a divorce in the early 2000s, is now a Monterey County judge, appointed in 2010 by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
A day after the abduction, the detectives traveled to the southern border and tried to get the bounty hunters released, but were rebuffed by federal authorities. They did manage to talk to Espinosa in jail, and promised to do all they could to secure the release of the four of them.
In the end, three of them pleaded guilty and spent time in federal prison. But Anguiano challenged his arrest, claiming innocence because he was doing the bidding of Salinas homicide detectives who planned the abduction from the start. He was then offered a plea deal on misdemeanor charges, which he accepted.
The detectives insisted they were not involved in rounding up Covarrubias, saying that the bounty hunters were working on their own at the behest of the victims’ family, who were willing to pay the men $5,000 for Covarrubias’ capture.
Covarrubias did not testify at his trial in Salinas, but his attorney told jurors that Covarrubias had gone to the apartment to help his cousin retrieve some items and was not aware of any plan to rob or murder the family.
After a month-long trial, the jury found Covarrubias guilty on 10 counts, including three counts of murder and one count of attempted murder. The jury also found that special circumstances made Covarrubias eligible for the death penalty and, on Sept. 24, the jury sentenced him to death.
The sentence was upheld after an automatic appeal to the state Supreme Court in 2008. But Covarrubias’ attorneys were able to get the Supreme Court to reconsider the case in 2017 on grounds that the judge at the trial, Judge Robert Moody, wrongfully dismissed a potential juror.
The potential juror had been a state corrections officer with the rank of captain. In the written questionnaire given to jurors, the captain said he strongly opposed the death penalty because he believed it was imposed too often, but he said he would be willing to set aside his personal feelings in this instance.
In the end, the Supreme Court would not overturn Covarrubias’ conviction, but it agreed to reverse the death sentence.
The captain was dismissed from serving on the jury, but in Covarrubias’s appeal his attorney argued that Moody should have questioned him further before letting him go. In the end, the Supreme Court would not overturn Covarrubias’ conviction, but it agreed to reverse the death sentence. He was moved from death row in San Quentin to the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo.
Last year, Covarrubias petitioned Monterey County court to seek a retrial — or to release him from custody. That petition is based on several allegations, including his assertion that his trial attorney provided “ineffective assistance” because none of the information on the ”massive official misconduct” that led to his capture and arrest had been made available to him.
The petition alleges that police and prosecutors withheld potential evidence from the defense team and covered up the illegal activity. None of the details of Covarrubias’s capture was provided to jurors, according to the petition.
“Had his jury learned of it … it is reasonably probable that petitioner would have received a more favorable outcome,” according to the petition.
Pesenhofer, the deputy DA, says that his office denies all of the allegations.
Meanwhile, one of the other suspects, Joaquin Nunez, was convicted of murder for the crime and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. However, a federal court vacated his convictions, citing the coercive interrogation methods employed on him by McLaughlin. The third suspect, Antonio Sanchez, apparently fled to Mexico and has not been found.
Because Covarrubias’ allegations incriminate key figures in local criminal justice, a judge from outside the county has been assigned the case. In her preliminary ruling, filed Dec. 4, Judge Vanessa Zecher of Santa Clara County, said she is inclined to deny Covarrubias’ petition.
“The court does not see any proffered evidence … that suggests that the outcome of the Petitioner’s trial would have been different had there been sufficient investigation to uncover all of the wrongdoing that Petitioner alleges occurred prior to his trial,” she wrote.
Dubcoff and the Pesenhofer have been submitting legal arguments since Zecher’s preliminary ruling. She is expected to make a final judgment as early as next month.
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