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Trial opens for Healdsburg man accused of murder, burying body in marijuana garden

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Jose Evelio Martinez couldn’t get the man to leave him alone.

Healdsburg resident Socorro Sierra had been calling and showing up uninvited to Martinez’s Cloverdale home, insisting he was owed as much as $16,000 because Martinez hadn’t come through with as much marijuana promised in a deal they’d made, Sonoma County prosecutors said.

And when Martinez went missing in June 2018, it would be Sierra who eventually led detectives to his body, buried under 6 feet of earth in a marijuana plantation off West Dry Creek Road in rural Healdsburg, according to the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office.

Martinez, 46, had been shot in the head at close range.

In the murder trial against Sierra that opened Friday, Chief Deputy District Attorney Scott Jamar described Sierra as an experienced drug dealer trafficking in methamphetamine and marijuana.

Sierra, 35, had become fixated on trying to extort money from Martinez, who was new to the black market, a truck driver with Friedman’s Home Improvement seeking extra cash after his wife’s death, Jamar said in his opening statement.

But Martinez didn’t have the kind of money Sierra was looking to get.

Sierra “admitted he killed the victim and buried him at a grow site,” Jamar said. “He treated him with great brutality and disrespect.”

Defense attorney Walter Rubenstein told jurors they wouldn’t hear him contest the accusation his client, Sierra, had killed Martinez. But he said prosecutors had it wrong when they described the crime as premeditated murder.

“You’re not going to get your money if you kill somebody,” Rubenstein said. “So at that moment, something else happened.”

He did not elaborate in his opening statements on a theory of what came next.

Martinez was shot and killed June 30, 2018, under the Old Geysers Bridge, a secluded area near The Geysers geothermal region dividing Sonoma and Lake counties.

He was considered a missing person for several weeks until investigators found his pickup in Santa Rosa, a break in the case that led investigators to arrest Sierra and two Santa Rosa men — accomplices who have already pleaded guilty to their roles in Martinez’s slaying in plea agreements with prosecutors.

Felix Fernando Carreon, 43, was sentenced to six years in state prison and Climmie Smith-Hill, 30, received a one-year jail sentence with three years felony probation for their roles as accessories in the case.

The morning Martinez disappeared, investigators said Sierra had been spying on the man’s home and followed him when he drove to Ray’s Food Place in Cloverdale. Martinez bought milk and cookies and was confronted by Sierra in the parking lot, according to Jamar.

After some discussion, Martinez got into the back seat of Sierra’s car, sitting next to Smith-Hill. Carreon was in the front passenger seat and Sierra took the wheel and drove the group about 13 miles westward up winding Geysers Road.

Smith-Hill testified Friday that he had worked with Sierra once before and assumed they were all headed to a marijuana grow. He said Martinez seemed scared and fidgeted with the car door.

Sierra parked at the old bridge, and Martinez got out. As Martinez walked away, Sierra pulled a 9mm handgun out from under his seat and put it in his rear waistband, according to Smith-Hill.

The two men went under the bridge to talk while the other two waited.

Then they heard a single gunshot, Smith-Hill said. Sierra returned to the car alone, and held up a shell casing, according to the court testimony.

“He seemed pretty happy with what he did,” Smith-Hill said.

Sierra would later return to the site alone, put Martinez’s body in a garbage bag and bring it to the West Dry Creek pot farm, where he rented an excavator to dig a grave, according to prosecutors.

Rubenstein asked jurors to be skeptical of Smith-Hill’s statements, characterizing the plea bargain as “selling his testimony” in exchange for less serious punishment.

He asked the jury, when deciding premeditation, to consider evidence that Sierra had brought two other men to the secluded area when he confronted Martinez, including a man he hardly knew. Rubenstein asked them to question whether Sierra would bring a near-stranger as backup if he had set out to kill, noting Sierra had taken responsibility for his crimes when he admitted to investigators that he had killed Martinez.

The trial continues Monday with testimony from additional witnesses.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com.

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