The trial in the death of 26-year-old Korey Kauffman has gotten underway in Stanislaus County Superior Court, with defense attorney Frank Carson and brothers Baljit Athwal and Daljit Atwal standing accused of the Turlock man’s murder.
Though the trial is still in the opening statement phase, the defense team has shown one tactic they plan on pursuing, which is to discredit several of the prosecution’s witnesses, particularly Michael Cooley and Robert Lee Woody. Both men are intrinsically important to the prosecution’s case and both come with their own credibility issues. The prosecution says Woody was an eyewitness to Kauffman’s death, while Cooley and Carson’s feud was the impetus for the events leading up to Kauffman’s death.
Carson and the two brothers, who own the Pop N’ Cork stores in Turlock, have been accused of murder for Kauffman’s death in 2012. The district attorney’s office claims Carson was angry over thefts at his property on Ninth Street that he believed were being committed by Cooley — his Lander Avenue neighbor. Their theory of the case has Carson — the one-time candidate for district attorney — serving as the mastermind of a criminal conspiracy that ultimately led to the death of Kauffman on March 31, 2012.
Kauffman was last seen by Cooley and others on March 30, 2012 as he left the Lander Avenue home to go to a property on Ninth Street. The district attorney’s office claims Kauffman was headed to Carson’s property to take some irrigation pipes that had been left out as “bait” to catch the thieves.
Cooley, in a previous interview with the Journal, said he and Carson had been having ongoing encounters that were growing in intensity. He said he did plan on stealing the irrigation pipes but changed his mind and tried to convince Kauffman it was a bad idea.
The defense believes Cooley has been untruthful in several matters in the investigation, possibly to hide his own culpability in Kauffman’s death, and plans on presenting witnesses that will prove this theory.
Tuesday morning primarily focused on whether or not defense attorney Hans Hjertonsson could present this theory regarding Cooley to the jury in his opening statement. Hjertonsson stated he had witnesses who would testify that Cooley was known to pull knives on people and that a criminalist would testify that some of Kauffman’s clothing had cuts that appeared to have been made with a knife. The defense also has witnesses who claim Cooley confessed to killing Kauffman.
Judge Barbara Zuniga ruled that the defense could include the theory in their opening statement and that it would be up to the jury to decide if Cooley is credible or not.
Woody also could be a problematic witness for the prosecution, though his testimony will be key if they hope to obtain a guilty verdict.
Woody, who was the first to be arrested for Kauffman’s killing, has agreed to a plea deal and has testified for the prosecution during the preliminary hearing. During his testimony, Woody stated that Baljit Athwal caught Kauffman on Carson’s property and that he was fighting with him when Woody and Daljit Atwal arrived at the Ninth Street property. Woody said Daljit Atwal joined in the fight and fatally shot Kauffman. Woody testified that he helped bury Kauffman’s body in a field next to the Pop N’ Cork on East Avenue in Turlock, and that later he helped move it and leave it in the Stanislaus National Forest.
Woody has told investigators several different versions of the events, but once the other defendants were arrested he agreed to cooperate with the prosecution.
In addition to the criminal proceeding, the case has spawned two civil matters. Carson’s wife Georgia DeFilippo and his stepdaughter Christina DeFilippo have filed a lawsuit against Stanislaus County and various cities and law enforcement agencies for violations of their civil rights after they were arrested in the homicide and conspiracy investigation.
The lawsuit was filed against Stanislaus County, the City of Modesto, the City of Turlock, the City of Ceres, and members of law enforcement and the district attorney’s office for violation of their civil rights, malicious prosecution, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and defamation. The mother and daughter had both been arrested, but the charges were dismissed at the conclusion of the preliminary hearing.
More recently, former California Highway Patrol Officer Eduardo Quintanar Jr. filed claims against Stanislaus County District Attorney Brigit Fladager, the City of Modesto and others for violations of his constitutional rights, defamation, false arrest, malicious prosecution and additional claims directly resulting from his arrest in the case.
Quintanar was charged with conspiracy in Kauffman’s death, but on Oct.24, 2017, Zuniga ruled that there was no evidence presented during the lengthy preliminary hearing that Quintanar was involved in any crimes and he was released with all charges against him dropped.
“This has been a nightmare for Officer Quintanar. He lost his job, his reputation and dignity as a direct result of the malicious acts of the defendants,” said Randall Strauss, Esq. of Gwilliam, Ivary, Chiosso Cavalli & Brewer, who represents Quintanar.
The claim could be a precursor to a lawsuit if rejected by the county.