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.