The alleged mastermind of a robbery that turned deadly is a quiet, friendly person who would not have agreed to participate in a violent crime, jurors were told Wednesday as the trial began for an Oxnard man accused of murder in the death of a Port Hueneme landlord.
Even if George Pena took part in the Dec. 1 robbery of Richard Schell, he could not have foreseen that anyone would die because he did not know one of his co-defendants had a gun, Deputy Public Defender Bryant A. Villagran said in his opening statement to the jury.
The prosecutor in the case painted a much different picture of Pena, telling jurors the 23-year-old defendant came up with the idea to rob Schell as he collected rent from his tenants and then persuaded three younger males to help him.
Pena made sure a gun was taken along so the effort would not fail, Deputy Dist. Atty. Donald C. Glynn said. While Pena waited in the getaway car, the other robbers surrounded Schell in his vehicle, and one of them shot the landlord as he attempted to drive away.
Schell, 52, of Santa Barbara died of a single gunshot that tore into his shoulder and passed through his heart. The robbers fled after the shooting, leaving $2,000 in cash behind in Schell's truck.
Pena is charged with first-degree murder, attempted robbery, being armed during the crime and the special allegation of murder during a robbery, a charge that carries a sentence of life in prison without parole.
He is the last of three defendants to stand trial in Schell's killing. A fourth defendant, David Soto, 20, pleaded guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for his testimony against the other three.
Since the prosecution's case rests mostly on Soto's credibility, Villagran devoted most of his remarks to making Soto look like a liar who would do anything to save himself.
Villagran told jurors in his opening statement that Soto is a "young and immature man put under tremendous pressure" to cooperate with police.
After repeatedly being threatened with a possible death sentence or spending the rest of his life in prison, Soto agreed to plead guilty to second-degree murder and accept a sentence of 16 years to life in prison, Villagran said.
"You can understand that a person may have a motive to take that bait," Villagran said. "We're dealing with someone who's fighting for his life."
Instead of telling the truth, however, the defense attorney said, Soto made up details as he was interviewed over and over by police and district attorney investigators. While at first insisting that no one knew Gilbert Martinez, 16, brought a gun to the robbery, Soto later said Pena made sure in advance that someone had a firearm.
That was a lie, Villagran said, as were Soto's statements that the robbery was Pena's idea and that he coerced Soto into participating.
While Pena's mother sat in the back of the courtroom and wept quietly, Villagran told the jury that Pena was not indifferent to the taking of human life, a finding the jury must make to send the defendant to prison without the possibility of parole.
Glynn told the jury that Pena met Schell three years before the robbery when his sister became one of Schell's tenants. Pena was familiar with Schell's routine of collecting rent--most of it in cash--on the first day of the month, the prosecutor said.
Pena first tried to rob Schell on Nov. 1, 1992, but he and Pena abandoned the plan when they lost Schell in traffic, Glynn said. By the following month Pena had recruited two other accomplices, Jose Arreguin, 20, of Oxnard and Martinez, of Port Hueneme, the prosecutor said.
Glynn said Martinez was the shooter, even though another jury acquitted him of that in June and instead found him guilty only of attempted robbery. Arreguin was convicted of first-degree murder during an attempted robbery and has been sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Both Martinez and Arreguin are expected to refuse to testify against Pena.