Jurors hear opening statements in murder trial for 1992 stabbing at Rancho Cucamonga warehouse party

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RANCHO CUCAMONGA — Jurors heard opening statements from attorneys today in a man’s murder trial for allegedly stabbing another man to death in 1992 at an illegal warehouse party.

A prosecutor told jurors that Freddy Najarro, 36, stabbed an unarmed Riverside man 13 or 14 times at the party in Rancho Cucamonga after becoming angry about the way the man watched Najarro dance with his girlfriend.

During his opening statement, Deputy District Attorney John Patrick Thomas projected a photo in the courtroom depicting 19-year-old Dennis Smalling lying unclothed on a hospital gurney.

“This is the ultimate result of that confrontation: Dennis Smalling laid out on a gurney — dead,” Thomas told jurors in West Valley Superior Court.

The investigation into Smalling’s death went cold after San Bernardino County sheriff’s detectives were unable to identify Smalling’s killer in an image captured from video footage of the party.

It remained cold until last year, when a woman browsing cold-case photos on a newspaper website saw the image of Smalling’s killer — she knew the man was Najarro, and she anonymously provided the tip to detectives, Thomas told jurors.

In the defense opening statement, Najarro’s attorney did not dispute that the Pomona man was involved in a fight with Smalling.

But Gary Wynings characterized their scuffle as mutual — with Najarro pitted against an opponent four inches taller than him.

“Mr. Smalling is beating the crap out of Mr. Najarro, according to several accounts you will hear,” Wynings told jurors.

Najarro and Smalling did not know each other prior to the May 15, 1992 party illegally staged in a vacant warehouse at 12027 Arrow Route, just west of the 15 Freeway, Thomas said.

Smalling went to the party with three friends, and Najarro went with his girlfriend and his brother, Thomas said.

Before visitors were admitted into the party, they were searched at the door for weapons. But Najarro, who was friends with some of the organizers, was not checked, Thomas said.

After attorneys in the case gave opening statements, Thomas called his first witness: Michael Alva, a friend of Smalling’s who was beside him when he was stabbed.

Before the stabbing, Alva said he spotted Smalling standing near the dance floor. He appeared tense, and his body language seemed to indicate something was wrong.

“I’m just thinking, ‘There’s something not right here,’” Alva testified.

Alva said he walked over and stood beside Smalling, whose eyes were locked on a man on the dance floor. Alva said he saw both men gesture at each other.

When Smalling’s adversary called used a racial epithet to describe Smalling — who was black — they began to fight, according to Alva.

“It was like instantly they started fighting,” he testified.

As Smalling punched the man in the face, his adversary pulled a knife or ice pick out of his pocket and repeatedly stabbed Smalling, Alva recalled.

During his testimony, Alva identified Najarro in court as the man who fought with Smalling.
After the fight, Alva said he found Smalling lying near one of the warehouse exits.

“He was lying down on his back and his intestines were out,” Alva said. “I saw his intestines.”

Smalling’s friends rushed him to Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Fontana. He was in full cardiac arrest by the time they arrived at the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

In his cross-examination of Alva, Wynings’ questions emphasized Smalling’s aggressive actions during the fight — as if to bolster his self-defense theory in Smalling’s death.

During the struggle between Smalling and Najarro, several lights and a sound system were toppled, causing the warehouse to go dark.

Wynings questioned Alva about what he saw once the interior of the warehouse went black.

“So you can’t really say what happened to Dennis after the lights went out, right?” Wynings asked.

“Correct,” Alva responded.

Upland man, 81, charged with child molestation

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RANCHO CUCAMONGA — An 81-year-old Upland man is facing criminal charges for allegedly molesting a boy from his neighborhood last week after asking the child for help moving furniture in his home.

Clarence Grover Gordon, a retired steelworker, is a fixture at Upland City Council meetings. He often speaks during the public comment segment of the meetings, offering opinions on a wide range of city issues.

He was arrested June 18 after allegedly molesting the boy at his home in the 2200 block of Wendy Way.

Gordon was charged Tuesday with committing a lewd act on a child under 14, a charge that carries a prison sentence of up to eight years.

He pleaded not guilty to the charge Wednesday in West Valley Superior Court, and remains jailed in lieu of $250,000 in West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga.

In a 2005 Daily Bulletin article about Gordon, the married father of two said he has lived in Upland since the 1950s, but didn’t begin attending City Council meetings until the early 1990s.

“I didn’t like the way things were going in the city, but I was too busy when I was younger to do anything about it,” Gordon said in the article. “I think people should know what’s going on in the city and do something about what they don’t like.”

According to a police report attached to Gordon’s court file, Gordon has known the boy’s parents for several years.

So when he walked to their home seeking help at about 11:30 a.m. on June 18, the boy’s mother felt comfortable allowing her son to go to Gordon’s house.

Once the boy was inside Gordon’s home, the retiree sat down on his living room couch and told the boy to sit down next to him. No one else was in the house because Gordon’s wife had left earlier that day to tend to her daughter’s dogs.

According to the police report, the boy told officers that Gordon began touching his genitals, and continued touching him for 15 to 30 minutes.

“(The boy) said he told Gordon to stop three times,” Officer Gabriel Garcia wrote in a police report attached to Gordon’s court file. “(The boy) told Gordon he did not like it.

“Gordon said, ‘No, enjoy it. Enjoy it.’ (The boy) said it did not feel good and he told Gordon to ‘please stop.’”

When police interviewed Gordon the day of the alleged molestation, he admitted he touched the boy’s genitals, but he said the boy consented to the touching, according to the police report.

“I asked Gordon how old he thought the victim was, and he answered, ’12,’” Detective John DiVincenzo reported. “I asked Gordon how many children he had. He answered, ‘A daughter and a son.’

“I asked him, having been a parent of once-small children, if he thought it was appropriate for him, someone outside the family, to have a boy pull down his pants in his home and touch his penis. Gordon agreed it was wrong.”

Principal’s sexual abuse case dismissed after prosecutors pass on retrial

POMONA — A prosecutor announced today that the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office will not retry a former Christian school principal on charges that he sexually abused students.

John Asher’s eyes welled with tears after his case was dismissed in Pomona Superior Court.

“I don’t know what to say except, I guess, I’m just finally grateful that after 38 months the truth has been revealed, that this is over and I can get on with my life,” Asher said.

Asher was arrested and charged with four felonies in 2007 after two students accused the 50-year-old of sexually abusing them nearly a decade ago at Life Center Christian School in Pomona.

A jury acquitted Asher on three felony counts in May, and deadlocked 8-4 in favor of acquittal on a fourth count.

Prosecutors had the option of retrying Asher on the fourth count — for allegedly raping a student who was sent to his office to be disciplined.

Asher’s prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney Miji Vellakkatel, said in an interview that a decision not to retry Asher was made after speaking to Asher’s accuser and her parents, and after further investigation in the case.

After Asher’s trial, investigators interviewed a student who was identified as a possible victim because she was often alone with Asher. He often gave the girl a ride home.

The student said Asher never abused her, Vellakkatel said.

The prosecutor said criminal charges could be refiled against Asher if authorities discover new evidence in the case, “whether it’s another victim or witness that could assist us in prosecuting the case.”

Judge Mike Camacho granted a defense motion to dismiss Asher’s case after Vellakkatel announced prosecutors would not pursue a retrial.

“Mr. Asher is excused. That’s it,” Camacho said.

After the hearing, Asher hugged his attorney and two supporters in the hallway outside Camacho’s courtroom.

When asked why he believes the former students accused Asher of sexual abuse, Asher’s attorney, David Robert Cohn, said, “We don’t have a clue. You can speculate about all kinds of things.”

The student who accused Asher of raping her first came forward in 2004, but criminal charges weren’t filed until three years later, when a student accused Asher of touching her sexually during the 2000-2001 school year.

The second alleged victim said in her trial testimony that she was unaware of the other student’s rape allegation when she came forward.

Asher’s defense implied the two students may have collaborated in their accusations.

Trucker in fatal crash awaits prosecutors’ decision on retrial

RANCHO CUCAMONGA — A prosecutor said today that a decision hasn’t been made on whether to retry a commercial driver whose runaway dump truck smashed into another vehicle, killing its driver.

Adam Ahlberg made his first court appearance today since a jury acquitted him of a felony and deadlocked on a misdemeanor for the June 16, 2006 death of Angel Calzada in Rancho Cucamonga.

A mistrial was declared after the jury failed to reach a verdict on the misdemeanor, and prosecutors have the option of retrying Ahlberg, 30, for vehicular manslaughter.

“We don’t know if there’s going to be a retrial on the Ahlberg case yet,” said Ahlberg’s prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney Charles Feibush.

Feibush said Ahlberg was ordered at today’s hearing to return to West Valley Superior Court on July 7 for a pre-trial hearing.

Ahlberg’s former employer, Clark Grading Inc., also faces criminal charges and has a court hearing that day, Feibush said.

Asked why a decision hasn’t been made yet on a retrial, Feibush said, “We’re looking at all possibilities, and these things take time.”

Calzada, a Rancho Cucamonga city employee, was pronounced dead at the scene after Ahlberg’s truck collided with his Ford F-250 at Archibald Avenue and Arrow Route.

Ahlberg’s brakes failed at the northern end of Archibald, and he reached speeds of up to 70 mph as he traveled south on the street’s downhill slope.

He blew through several stop signs and red lights before colliding with Calzada’s truck.

Prosecutors allege Ahlberg and Clark Grading knew the truck had faulty brakes and failed to properly repair them.

Murder trial under way in cold case

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RANCHO CUCAMONGA — Jury selection began today in a man’s murder trial in West Valley Superior Court for allegedly stabbing a Riverside man to death 18 years ago.

Freddy Najarro, 36, is accused of killing 19-year-old Dennis Smalling on May 15, 1992 at a warehouse party in Rancho Cucamonga.

Smalling’s death remained unsolved until last year, after San Bernardino County Sheriff’s detectives distributed playing cards in local jails with information about cold cases.

Najarro allegedly stabbed Smalling because he was unhappy with the way Smalling eyed his girlfriend at the party, according to authorities.

Najarro’s attorney argued at his preliminary hearing at Smalling was the aggressor in the incident.

Teen pleads not guilty to laser charge

A Fontana teen pleaded not guilty Monday to a felony charge alleging he pointed a laser at a police helicopter.

Martin Anthony Perez, 18, was arrested May 8 after police say he shined a laser at a Fontana police helicopter in the area of Alder and San Bernardino avenues.

At Perez’s arraignment Monday in Fontana Superior Court, the San Bernardino County Public Defender’s Office was appointed to represent him. He is next due in court June 29.

Attorney sentenced in embezzlement case

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RANCHO CUCAMONGA – A local attorney was sentenced Monday for embezzling more than $40,000 from a client.

Catherine Brame, 53, was sentenced in West Valley Superior Court to 120 days in jail. Judge Raymond P. Van Stockum also placed the Rancho Cucamonga woman on probation for three years and ordered her to repay the embezzled sum.

Brame pleaded no contest last month to a felony embezzlement charge filed after she allegedly emptied a bank account she controlled for a divorce client.

Her client, a Riverside County man who spoke at Brame’s sentencing hearing, sold a Juice It Up franchise during his divorce proceedings that he owned jointly with his wife.

Because the couple’s divorce case was unresolved, proceeds from the sale were placed in an bank account controlled by Brame. Prosecutors allege she took more than $40,000 from the account.

As part of a plea bargain reached with prosecutors, Brame said she would agree to be disbarred, Deputy District Attorney Mary Izadi said.

Alleged drunk driver pleads not guilty in fatal Rancho Cucamonga crash

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RANCHO CUCAMONGA — An alleged drunken driver accused of killing a man last weekend in a traffic collision pleaded not guilty today to gross vehicular manslaughter and other criminal charges.

Albert Gilbert Ruiz allegedly drove over a landscaped median that divided traffic on Church Street in Rancho Cucamonga. He collided head-on with a car driving in the opposite direction.

The driver of the other car, 64-year-old Paul Lawrence Martin, was killed in the crash, which occurred at about 9:15 p.m. Sunday just west of Elm Avenue.

One of Martin’s children, Jessica Cortez, said in an interview today at her father’s home that Martin had recently “semi-retired.” He had lived in Rancho Cucamonga since 2001, Cortez said.

“He was just the best person,” said Cortez, the youngest of Martin’s four children. “Everyone that knew him knew that.”

Ruiz, of Rancho Cucamonga, was charged Thursday with four felonies. The most severe charge — gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated — carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years.

Ruiz, 23, remained jailed Friday in lieu of $300,000 bail at West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga. He suffered minor cuts and bruises in the crash.

He is next due in court June 28. A preliminary hearing in the case, in which prosecutors must present evidence for a case to proceed to trial, is scheduled for June 30.

As Ruiz sat in his car at the accident scene, he reportedly told a San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputy that he drank “way too much beer” before driving. He also said, “Did I kill someone?” according to the deputy’s report.

A breath test at the scene measured Ruiz’s blood-alcohol level as 0.15. A blood sample yielded a result of 0.16 — twice the legal limit, according to a report attached to Ruiz’s court file.

A deputy interviewed Ruiz beside his hospital bed at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton. Ruiz’s court file contained a transcript of the interview.

Ruiz told the deputy that before the crash, he was at a friend’s house in Rancho Cucamonga watching the Celtics defeat the Lakers in Game 5 of the NBA Finals.

He told the deputy that he drank so much at the gathering that his friends were trying to keep him from leaving. He estimated he had seven beers.

“They didn’t want me to leave ’cause I couldn’t drive,” Ruiz told sheriff’s Deputy Chad Foytik, according to the transcript.

“They didn’t want me to leave. I kinda snuck away. I remember driving. I remember seeing, passing, seeing the street lights.”

Ruiz told the deputy he remembered driving on Church, but couldn’t remember crashing into Martin’s car.

“I just remember going that way,” he said. “I don’t remember the accident. I don’t remember hitting stuff.”

Authorities believe there may have been another man in Ruiz’s car who left the scene after the collision. Ruiz told deputies he was driving alone.

But the passenger-side airbag on Ruiz’s 2005 Nissan Sentra deployed after the crash.

Witnesses also told deputies that they saw a man walking around near the Sentra after the crash, acting frantic. He left the area before paramedics arrived.

A witness told deputies that the man, who was wearing a purple Lakers jersey, was rubbing his head and pulling his hair. More than once he said, “I gotta get out of here,” witnesses told authorities.

CIM inmate pleads not guilty to arson

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Pictured: Joshua Hall, the prison barracks McDougald allegedly set ablaze.

CHINO — An inmate accused of participating in last year’s riot at the California Institution for Men pleaded not guilty Thursday to arson.

Caris Lynn McDougald, 24, is accused of setting fire to a barracks during the disturbance in August in the Reception Center-West section of the prison.

More than 300 inmates were injured during the 12-hour riot, which was described in a prison report as a “racial disturbance” between inmates.

A corrections officer who worked to quell the riot reported seeing McDougald add flammable material to a fire at a barracks. The inmate also allegedly lit a towel on fire and threw it onto the roof of the building.

Thursday was McDougald’s first appearance in Chino Superior Court. The San Bernardino County Public Defender’s Office was appointed to represent him. The inmate is next due in court Wednesday.

A prosecutor said McDougald’s case is “one of the first, if not the first” criminal prosecutions related to the riot. Eighty-eight inmates have been charged with rules violations by the Department of Corrections.

Man convicted of murder for woman’s stabbing in Pomona

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POMONA — An Azusa man was convicted of first-degree murder Thursday for the fatal stabbing of his cousin’s wife, whose body was left in an abandoned van two years ago beside Pomona Superior Court.

A jury of seven men and five women deliberated for about five hours before convicting 36-year-old Joseph Gary Orta.

Orta faces at least 26 years to life in prison. His sentencing is scheduled for July 14.

Prosecutors accused Orta of stabbing Eileen Nicole Ponce-Orta, 22, in the neck, then wrapping her body in a blanket and leaving her in a van beside the courthouse on Feb. 15, 2008.

The woman’s relatives discovered Ponce-Orta’s body after police told them to pick up the woman’s abandoned van. Ponce-Orta’s mother, Tracy Ponce, was one of the relatives who discovered the woman’s body.

“The family of Eileen Ponce is extremely happy that we got a guilty verdict,” Tracy Ponce said after the verdict was read Thursday afternoon. “We got justice for Eileen and for (her daughter) Alina, so we’re excited for that.”

Ponce-Orta, of Covina, had been unhappy in her marriage, and the month before her death she began an affair with Orta — her husband’s cousin — who had recently been released from prison for stabbing his stepfather.

Orta, Ponce-Orta and the woman’s daughter, now 5, spent the final days of Ponce-Orta’s life together. Prosecutors believe a break in the relationship between Orta and Ponce-Orta may have led to the woman’s killing on Valentine’s Day.

In his testimony during the trial, Orta said that the day before Ponce-Orta was found dead, she left him with her daughter at a park in Pomona and set off in her van to buy marijuana.

Orta said he never saw the woman again. And when Ponce-Orta’s body was left beside the courthouse in the early morning hours of Feb. 15, Orta was asleep in a Fontana motel, he claimed in his testimony.

In her closing argument, Deputy District Attorney Stacy Okun-Wiese told jurors that Orta’s story was a “fairy tale.”

Tracy Ponce said that when the guilty verdict was read, Orta’s reaction was difficult to read. “I didn’t see any reaction on him,” she said. “I thought I saw a smirk on his face.”

Orta’s defense attorney told the victim’s family as she left the courtroom that the case would be appealed, Tracy Ponce said.

“We expect appeals and I’ll be there for every one,” she said. “… At least right now he’s where he’s supposed to be — in jail behind bars.”

Tracy Ponce, of La Puente, said that long before Orta’s trial, she began working on a statement to read aloud in court at his sentencing.

“I’m going to remind him of who he hurt, and that’s Eileen’s daughter, Alina,” she said. “She has to grow up with no mommy. That’s mostly what I’m going to talk about.”

After Ponce-Orta’s killing, the woman’s husband and daughter had their last names changed to Ponce — removing Orta to symbolically cut ties with the Orta family, Tracy Ponce said.

“There are no Ortas in our house any more,” she said.