The trial of two Sonoma County men charged in a Healdsburg-area pot garden slaying began Tuesday with testimony from a co-defendant.
Sidonio Cruz-Santos, 36, of Santa Rosa and Augustin Zepeda-Onofre, 25, of Windsor are charged with murdering Gabino Lopez-Santiago, 46, of Healdsburg near the remote field off Chemise Road.
Their trial was postponed because of publicity surrounding an unrelated triple homicide in February during a pot deal near Forestville. Defense attorneys feared jurors would make an unfair comparison.
With the Forestville case on hold while the last of three defendants awaits extradition from New Mexico, jurors heard testimony from a man who reached a plea bargain with prosecutors in the Chemise Road killing.
Ramon Lopez-Velasco, 29, of Healdsburg -- the brother-in-law of the victim -- had originally been charged with murder. He pleaded to being an accessory to cultivation in a deal that required his truthful testimony.
He said he was looking for temporary work when he was hired by Cruz-Santos to trim and dry marijuana plants.
He said both defendants carried handguns around the wooded property and managed a second pot garden not far away. They told him they were growing the marijuana for a disabled Santa Rosa woman.
The night of the killing, Oct. 15, 2011, the defendants, Lopez-Santiago and his roommate, Conrado Valentin-Cruz, were at the garden, drinking heavily. An argument broke out between Lopez-Santiago and Valentin-Cruz because Valentin-Cruz's wife learned he had been using cocaine, prosecutor Anne Masterson said.
At one point, Cruz-Santos pulled out his gun and ordered them all to leave, saying "the devil's tempting me," Masterson said.
She said Lopez-Velasco heard gunfire as he walked to get a truck. He returned to find his brother-in-law's body on the ground, Masterson said.
When he asked what happened, Cruz-Santos told him to "get that garbage out of here," Masterson said.
Lopez-Velasco loaded the body in the truck and dumped it on Mill Creek Road, Masterson said.
He immediately reported the killing to Healdsburg police. Sheriff's deputies drove to Chemise Road and arrested Cruz-Santos, who was sleeping in an SUV, and Zepeda-Onofre, who was driving a vehicle with blood on his pants and boots, Masterson said.
Lopez-Velasco didn't tell police that he placed the body on the road until the next day. It was found by a newspaper carrier.
Defense attorneys said there were many holes in his story. Kristine Burk, Zepeda-Onofre's lawyer, said Lopez-Velasco fabricated a story about being forced at gunpoint to dump the body. Cruz-Santos' lawyer, George Boisseau, also accused Lopez-Velasco of lying. He said the only person with motive to kill was Valentin-Cruz.
"They came close to blows," he said. "They were mad at each other."
You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or firstname.lastname@example.org.