After hearing testimony from local law enforcement and arguments from the prosecution and defense, San Benito County Superior Court Judge Steven Sanders determined on Feb. 21 that there was enough evidence to continue holding Christopher James Larios, 34, without bail in connection with the alleged murder of Raul De La Rosa on Dec. 23, 2014.
Defense attorney Harry Damkar tried to convince the judge that De La Rosa’s death was an accident or, at most, voluntary manslaughter.
District Attorney Candice Hooper laid out the prosecution’s evidence against Larios. She said Hollister police officers were dispatched to a house at 2020 Scenic Circle where De La Rosa, 28, died around 3 a.m. The first to arrive was Officer Theresa Aguilera, who saw De La Rosa laying in the front yard with Larios kneeling over him.
Hooper said Larios was taken to the Hollister Police Department to be interviewed, where he claimed he wasn’t at the apartment and did not live there, which proved later to be untrue. She said Larios was a shooting suspect for a time, but there was not enough evidence to implicate him, despite the fact that a female witness who was in the residence told police that Larios was in the living room with De La Rosa when she heard the gunshot.
“Then you get him coming in after spending time in prison, after reflecting on his life, it sounds like he couldn’t live with himself anymore and he had to tell the truth that he shot the victim,” Hooper said at the hearing.
The district attorney’s office did not respond to BenitoLink’s request for information about when and why Larios was in prison.
Hooper described the scene in which Larios and De La Rosa were seated in chairs in the living room. She said Larios told police after turning himself in on April 24, 2019, that he had lied to police in 2014. Larios told police he killed De La Rosa because he didn’t like him, which Hooper said may have been because De La Rosa had broken up with Larios’ sister the day before the shooting. She said Larios picked up a sawed-off .22-caliber rifle and shot De La Rosa in the face.
Damkar argued that the most compelling piece of evidence was Larios’ statement five years after the killing, which he contended did not match the facts of the physical evidence, namely where De La Rosa was shot, below the jaw. He also said the female witness in the other room told officers that she heard someone say, “Look out, that gun is loaded. Don’t mess with it,” just before the sound of the gunshot.
“That, your honor, may amount to involuntary manslaughter. It may amount to a voluntary manslaughter,” Damkar said, “but I don’t believe there’s enough physical evidence to link my client to a murder.”
Damkar said that at the time of the shooting, the coroner could not determine whether De La Rosa committed suicide, or whether it was an accidental shooting, or a homicide. He said he doubted it was a suicide and didn’t think it was an intentional murder, but said he thought it could have been an accident.
“Mr. Larios may have disliked Mr. De La Rosa, and he may have inartfully made the statement to the police department because he felt bad about his friend having suffered death because he had time to think about it when he was in prison,” Damkar said.
In what could be compared to a crime novel, HPD had the alleged shooter in hand, but let him go only to have him return five years later to confess to Detective John Martinez and Sergeant Bo Leland, who was a detective at the time of the shooting.
Leland said Larios was armed with a knife when he entered the department in 2019, which Leland took away. Larios was not under arrest and police told him he could leave at any time. Leland said that while Larios was in prison he had been praying and wanted to revise his 2014 statement.
“The truth was he had actually committed the murder that we were investigating,” Leland said.
According to Leland, Larios told police that he was seated on a couch next to De La Rosa and that there was a 12-gauge shotgun and a sawed-off .22 rifle on the couch between them. De La Rosa left the room for a moment, and when he returned he sat on a small chair.
“He [Larios] grabbed the .22 rifle and shot the victim once,” Leland said of Larios’ confession. “He called 911, dragged the victim’s body to the street, and waited for the police to arrive.”
Hooper asked Leland if Larios requested an attorney; Leland said Larios did not want an attorney at the time he made his statement, and said he would “plead the fifth” if he was asked any questions he didn’t like.
Damkar had Leland clarify that Larios came in to make his statement on his own accord. Leland said Larios told him that when an attorney was appointed he wanted it to be Gregory LaForge. LaForge was initially appointed his public defender, but withdrew because of an unexplained conflict of interest.
Leland said Larios confessed to killing De La Rosa “out of a general dislike for him,” but would not elaborate. He said Larios told the detectives that he had thrown the two weapons in the garage after the shooting. Neither weapon has been found.
During the hearing, Damkar pointed out that Leland could not remember if Larios used the term “murder” in his 2019 statement to police, and that Larios appeared to be remorseful. After Larios was booked on suspicion of murder, Leland and Martinez went to the residence and searched the garage, but did not find any weapons, as was the case in 2014. Leland said the property owner also told him that he had not found any weapons.
Officer Aguilera testified that when she arrived at the scene of the shooting in 2014, she couldn’t render first aid to De La Rosa because Larios was acting erratically and wasn’t listening to her commands. She said other officers arrived, entered the house and determined it was the initial crime scene. At the time, paramedics determined De La Rosa was dead and only knew he had suffered some sort of head injury.
Other law enforcement, including gang officer Matthew Weiss and officer Stacy Esqueva (a detective in 2014) testified about their investigations. Weiss said Larios claimed he found De La Rosa in the living room and tried to drag him to the car in order to take him to the hospital, but De La Rosa was too heavy, so he left him in the front yard. And rather than just being roommates as Larios claimed, Weiss said Larios and De La Rosa had grown up together, and that De La Rosa dated his sister. Weiss said they were members of a gang, all of whom, including Larios, shared the sawed-off .22 rifle, which was short enough to carry in a pouch.
Hooper stipulated that Esqueva would be speaking for the medical examiner, Dr. Matrina Schmidt, because she was present during the autopsy. During the examination, Schmidt discovered that De La Rosa had not suffered any blunt force trauma, but had been shot below the jaw. Esqueva said the coroner believed that even though there was evidence indicating De La Rosa had been shot at close range, it was most likely not a suicide.
When Hooper asked what the coroner determined, Esqueva said, “Mr. De La Rosa suffered a gunshot wound that ended his life.”
Larios will return to court March 12 for an arraignment hearing.