Survivor in deadly 2016 Sebastopol pot-related shooting testifies in court hearing
Three years ago, Geena Gauthier was playing blackjack on her phone, trying not to pay attention to the marijuana deal taking place just feet away involving her boyfriend, a friend and two strangers who had come to make a bulk purchase. She was sitting on a stool in the garage of her friend's home in rural Sebastopol. The mood, so far, had been relaxed.
Then - bang, bang, bang - the sound of gunfire brought Gauthier to her feet. She heard her boyfriend scream. She saw one of the strangers, a man, level a gun at her.
He shot her in the face, and she spun around, landing on her knees, seeing blood, teeth and parts of her jaw bone on the floor, Gauthier testified Tuesday in Sonoma County Superior Court.
“Did you look up?” Deputy District Attorney Juliette Hyde said.
“No,” Gauthier said.
“Why?” Hyde said.
“Because I was afraid I would get shot again,” said Gauthier.
Tuesday was the start of a preliminary hearing in the murder case against suspected gunman Robert Lee Randolph, 33, and his accomplice, Maria Teresa Lebron, 31, both of Philadelphia - a long-awaited moment in a case that involved a two-year manhunt for Lebron and Randolph. They were finally apprehended in December 2018 in Austin, Texas.
They are accused of murder in the Oct. 15, 2016, killings of former teacher Nathan Proto, 36, of Sebastopol, John Jess Mariana, 28, of Guerneville, and the attempted murder of Gauthier, who was 23 at the time of the shootings. For more than three hours Tuesday, Gauthier recounted, in halting, emotional testimony, the terror she endured accompanying her boyfriend, Mariana, on what was supposed to be a marijuana deal but turned into a deadly robbery.
As Gauthier lay still, trying not to breathe, someone grabbed her sweatshirt by the neck and pulled her back, but she played dead, according to her testimony. Her ears were ringing but she heard the sounds of people talking, then someone zipping up a duffel bag of marijuana and walking out of the garage, closing the door, she testified. She heard an engine turn on and then the sound of car wheels on the rural gravel driveway. She thinks she heard a second car leave, too.
“I played dead until I was certain Lebron and Randolph were no longer in the garage,” said Gauthier.
Judge Chris Honigsberg will continue hearing testimony from detectives and others Thursday before he rules whether there is enough evidence to try Lebron and Randolph for the killings - charges that qualify for the death penalty. Sonoma County Chief Deputy District Attorney Brian Staebell said the office has not yet determined whether they will pursue capital punishment, and the decision is typically made after the preliminary hearing when a judge holds them to the charges.
Proto and Mariana were killed one month before California voters legalized recreational marijuana, a movement led in part by the drive to lessen the violent impact on communities from the black market cannabis trade. Their deaths involved a pattern local detectives had investigated before and since: East Coast suspects traveling to steal Sonoma County marijuana and resell outside the state, where the price of illicit marijuana can be doubled or tripled.
Three years before Proto, Mariana and Gauthier were gunned down in a garage, a Colorado man shot three men at close range during a marijuana deal at another rural Sebastopol house and stole the marijuana he was supposed to haul to the East Coast. He's now serving a life sentence in prison.
Sonoma County sheriff's investigators said Lebron and Randolph traveled to California several times in the six months leading up to the violent encounter at Proto's home on Highway 116 South in the community of Hessel. Mariana, who was originally from Philadelphia, had arranged the deal, which detectives at the time said involved about 100 pounds of marijuana worth $100,000 to $200,000.
Lebron and Randolph first met Mariana at his home near Guerneville, then parted ways and met up again that night at a coffee shop near Proto's house. From there, they caravanned to Proto's home where he was cultivating and processing marijuana.
At one point, Gauthier said she and Lebron sat outside and “chitchatted” while the men were inside, and they shared a blunt, a thick marijuana joint rolled in tobacco leaf like a cigar. She said Lebron talked about her children and running a jewelry store, and said her name was “Bonnie.”
“She was friendly, she was sweet,” Gauthier said.
After Lebron and Randolph had been at the property for about an hour, investigators said, Randolph opened fire.
In the courtroom, Gauthier described how it felt to be shot in the face - “like my face was melting off,” she said. She remained aware of her surroundings, she said, listening for the sounds of her assailants leaving.
As she testified about those moments, Lebron stared straight ahead, not making eye contact. Randolph kept his eyes lowered.
They have been in custody at the Sonoma County Jail since last spring when they were extradited here from Texas.
Testimony will continue Thursday.
You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jjpressdem.