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U.S. Army refuses to produce key witness in Merenda murder trial
darren merenda
Darren Merenda

As the trial of a Turlock man accused of killing his romantic rival moves closer to finishing, the likelihood that a key witness will be taking the stand seems to be vanishing.

Darren Merenda, 32, is on trial for the 2009 slaying of 34-year-old Donnie Futch of Hughson during a fight outside a Turlock apartment complex.  Around 3:30 a.m. Sept. 12, 2009, Merenda and Futch agreed to meet in the parking lot of a Colorado Avenue apartment complex to talk about the Merenda continuing to text Brook Barker, who was currently dating Futch and had dated Merenda in the past. The discussion turned into a fight that resulted in the stabbing death of Futch.

The prosecution rested their case on Tuesday after hearing from the forensic pathologist and the lead investigator of the case over the previous days.

The forensic pathologist testified on Monday that he found 11 stab wounds on Futch, with the most located in the torso, and two each on his left arm and thigh. The doctor said some of the wounds seemed to have been caused by the knife puncturing the skin and then being twisted. Futch died from massive blood loss due to multiple stab wounds, according to the doctor.

Turlock Police Detective Michael Parmley, the lead investigator on the case, testified on the course of the investigation and his interview with Merenda hours after the fatal stabbing.

Portions of the video interview between Parmley and Merenda were shown to the jury. In the video Merenda is seen having trouble remembering the events of that night and unaware of how tragic events had turned out.

Parmley asked Merenda multiple times about how his knife ended up at the crime scene and Merenda said he couldn’t remember ever getting a knife.

He also said during the interview that he never had any intentions to harm Futch.

Merenda kept asking if Futch was hurt. At one point in the interview Merenda asked, “I didn’t kill him did I?”

Parmley replied, “I think you may have.”

After a brief pause, Merenda asked again, “I killed him?”

“I believe you did,” Parmley said.

Merenda then leaned forward and sobbed into his hands.

Earlier in the interview with the detective, Merenda said he was scared to fight Futch, partly because he believed Futch had experience as a cage fighter.

The final witness called by the prosecution was Jose Reynoso Jr., who was Futch’s best friend. He testified Futch never participated in a cage fight and only did kick boxing as part of his workout.

The defense opened their case with three character witnesses for Merenda who all characterized him as a “peaceful” man.

After the jury was excused for the day, the court took up the matter once again of a missing key witness.

Peter De La Cruz was Merenda’s roommate at the time of the stabbing and both sides believe he has important information about the events of that night. He is currently serving in the U.S. Army.

Deputy District Attorney Annette Rees told the court that the army had declined to cooperate in getting De La Cruz to the trial.

In a brief hearing district attorney’s office investigator Steven Jacobson testified to the lengths the prosecution had gone to in trying to get De La Cruz to trial. Jacobson said he had received several assurances from the army that De La Cruz would be here for the trial, but after Sept. 26 things changed. Jacobson said at that point the army said they would not force De la Cruz to return on a state subpoena. Jacobson said attempts were made to get a federal subpoena, but to no avail. At last report De La Cruz was still in Kuwait.

Public defender Saul Garcia, who is representing Merenda, previously 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, previously 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.

The trial is scheduled to resume today.

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