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Murder trial underway; defense argues death was fight gone wrong
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The trial of a Turlock man accused of stabbing to death a romantic rival began Wednesday in Stanislaus County Superior Court with a key witness in the wind.

Darren Merenda, 32, is on trial for the 2009 slaying of 34-year-old Donnie Futch of Hughson. In charging Merenda with first-degree murder, the prosecution believes Merenda met Futch in a darkened alley outside his apartment complex with the intention of killing him.

The defense, while admitting to causing Futch’s death, said the stabbing was unintentional and the result of a fight gone horribly wrong.

The first witness to testify was Brook Barker, who moved into the same Colorado Avenue apartment complex where Merenda resided. In May 2009, Barker and Merenda began a dating relationship, which lasted about a month. Barker testified she ended the relationship because she began to “feel uncomfortable” about Merenda’s behavior. She testified Merenda was watching her and sending her texts about what she was wearing and her location.

About four weeks after breaking it off with Merenda, Barker began dating Futch.

Barker testified she continued to get texts from Merenda, as well as gifts — ranging from chocolates to $500 in cash. Barker stated Merenda was always the one to initiate contact, but the defense claims the communication was kept up on both sides.

About 3:30 a.m. on Sept. 12, 2009, Barker received a text message from Merenda stating he had seen her earlier that night at Staley’s bar and wanted to know why she didn’t say hello to him.

According to Barker’s testimony, Futch took her phone and sent back a text stating “Shut the (expletive) up! You’re a dumb (expletive)!”

Merenda responded back with a text that read “Donnie I’m not as dumb as you think.”

Soon the two men were speaking on the phone and agreed to go out to the parking lot to settle the dispute.

“I remember telling Donnie to be careful because he’s the type that would probably bring a knife,” Barker said, referring to Merenda.

Barker testified that the two met in the parking lot and soon they both had demeanors that were indicative of being upset. Barker said it was Futch who said they should move into the alley. She said she saw Futch walking with Merenda behind him and that she saw Merenda raise his arm and she saw the hilt of a dagger.

“I didn’t really believe what I saw,” Barker said.

When Barker ran around to the alley she saw the two men tussling in the alley and then move toward a fence. She testified she saw Merenda stabbing Futch and then saw Futch slowly slip to the ground.

“Darren got up covered in blood and I yelled at him ‘what did you do?’”

The police were contacted and officers administered CPR until emergency personnel arrived and pronounced Futch dead at the scene. According to the police report Futch suffered numerous stab wounds to the chest.

Merenda was taken into custody soon thereafter.

On Thursday Turlock Police Community Service Officer Ruth Hoover testified about collecting evidence at the scene and at Merenda’s apartment. In Merenda’s bedroom investigators found 11 knives and swords and three guns. One of the guns, a bolt-action rifle, was found next to the bed with a live round jammed in the chamber and another round on top of the bed, Hoover said.

Merenda’s roommate, Peter De La Cruz, is considered to be a key witness for both sides, but his whereabouts are a mystery. Deputy District Attorney Annette Rees said De La Cruz is an active duty serviceman and the Army has confirmed he is stateside, but was trying to locate him. A bench warrant has been issued for De La Cruz.

Public defender Saul Garcia, who is representing Merenda, asked for a mistrial because of De La Cruz’s absence. Garcia, who mentioned De La Cruz as a key witness in his opening statement to the jury, said he felt blindsided by the news that De La Cruz wasn’t present because he believed that was the exact reason why a continuance had not been granted. The defense had requested a continuance before the trial started because in part, Merenda wanted to bring in a private attorney to take over the case, but the request was denied. Garcia said the request was denied because De La Cruz was only going to be stateside for a short time and they had to get his testimony before he was deployed.

“Now I find out they never had him and that strikes me as fundamentally unfair,” Garcia said. “ … My client has been forced to go to trial without the attorney of his choice. I feel I was deceived, not intentionally maybe, but deceived.”

Rees said they are still trying to locate De La Cruz and she’s “still hoping he’s going to be here.”

Judge Dawna Frenchie Reeves ruled against the mistrial because she found no evidence of misconduct. She also ordered De La Cruz to be held in custody if he is located.

The trial will resume Monday.

To contact Sabra Stafford, e-mail or call 634-9141 ext. 2002.