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Witness paints a picture of self defense in Abbey trial
Kari Abbey

In the last day of testimony in the preliminary hearing for Kari Abbey, the defense put up a witness to debunk the criminal charge of murder lodged against the former sheriff’s detective.

The defense called Sally Pantoja to the stand Monday. Pantoja resided at the neighboring home on Donald Street at the time of the shooting and was a witness to the altercation leading up to the fatal encounter between Abbey and 31-year-old Rita Elias.

Abbey, 34, is accused of shooting Elias to death on Sept. 24, 2010, during an altercation at 1708 Donald St. in Modesto, which is owned by Abbey’s father. Abbey was at the property with her father, her property manager and her two children to collect back rent. She told Elias she had to leave because she wasn’t a tenant. The prosecution claims Elias had been living at the duplex for a long enough time that she should have been afforded the same rights as any other renter, in particular a due process eviction.

Abbey has been charged with second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, conspiracy to forcibly enter a home, embezzlement from a government entity, receiving stolen property, cultivating marijuana, and permitting a child to be endangered. The other charges stem from the investigation sparked by the shooting. Investigators obtained search warrants for Abbey’s residential property, where she lived with her husband Bennie Taylor, their two children and her parents. During the search investigators seized an assault rifle, a shotgun, a .22-caliber handgun, steroids, two police vests, 106 marijuana plants ranging in maturity, along with three bags of packaged marijuana, scales and packaging material.

The defense has argued that Abbey was acting in self-defense when she shot Elias. They’ve also argued that Abbey was not involved with the marijuana grow and that the embezzlement, stolen property and child endangerment counts are trumped up charges.

In her testimony Pantoja said she saw some of the events leading up to the shooting, but missed the physical fight between Abbey and Elias. Pantoja said she heard a commotion brewing outside and went to check it out. The first thing she saw was Elias picking up stuff off the road and shoving it into her backpack.

Pantoja testified Elias was cursing and “calling Kari Abbey out to fight her.” She said she heard James Abbey, Kari Abbey’s father, tell Elias multiple times to the leave the property. Pantoja recalled that at one point James Abbey warned Elias that if she didn’t leave, he would “unleash her (Abbey) on you again.”

Pantoja said she never heard Abbey say anything during the exchange between James Abbey and Elias.

In her recollection of the night, Pantoja said it appeared at one point that Elias was going to leave the property and let the dispute rest. But, Pantoja said Elias suddenly set her backpack down and said, “(Expletive) this, I’m going to get my gun.”

Elias went into the home and came back out with a branch in one hand and a gun in the other. The gun, which looked similar to a Colt handgun, was later discovered to be a BB gun.

Pantoja said she saw Elias moving quickly toward the back of James Abbey’s Ford Bronco. Pantoja testified that she didn’t see what happened next because she herself was taking cover on her porch. She said she heard five gunshots and then Abbey calling out for someone to call 911.

Pantoja testified she saw Elias on the ground and heard her mutter a few more expletives at the Abbeys before she died.

Under cross-examination by Chief Deputy District Attorney Dave Harris, Pantoja admitted she did not previously tell her account to investigators even though they came to her door twice on the night of the shooting. She said she was on parole and didn’t want to speak to the investigators. Pantoja testified she called Abbey after she read about the case online. She also testified she has since moved into a new rental and that Abbey is her landlord.

The hearing is scheduled to resume Monday afternoon, at which time each side will make their final arguments before Superior Court Judge Ricardo Cordova, who will determine if there is enough cause to hold Abbey over for trial on all the charges.

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