Witness Tells How Youth Was Speared in Head : Testimony: Trial begins for two accused of murder in death of Steve Woods, 17. Prosecution calls attack gang-related. Defense calls it an accident.
A 15-year-old San Clemente High School student on Monday quietly recalled her horror last October when a confrontation at a beach ended with her friend being speared through the head with a paint roller rod, an injury that would ultimately claim his life.
Christianne Malberg testified that she and Steve Woods, 17, were sitting side by side in a friend’s car as they tried to flee a group of young men who pelted their vehicle with bottles and other items. She heard shattering glass and realized Woods was no longer moving.
“At first, I glanced over at him,” Malberg said, looking down at her fidgeting hands as she responded to questioning by Deputy Dist. Atty. Gary Paer. “I saw it hanging out of his head. . . . He didn’t make a sound. He was slouched over. I screamed.”
Woods, a San Clemente High School student, died 25 days after the Oct. 15, 1993, incident, which apparently grew out of dispute between his friends who had gone to Calafia Beach County Park to party and drink beer and a group of other teen-agers the prosecution contends were gang members or gang associates.
Malberg was the first witness called in the non-jury trial of Hector Penuelas, 17, and Julio Perez Bonilla, 18, two of six young men charged in Woods’ killing. Three others face trial, while the sixth defendant has pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and awaits sentencing.
The case has stirred angry protests and revealed racial divisions in a beach community where crime and gang violence is still scarce. Many Latinos say the case has helped resurrect racial stereotypes and question whether police and community response would have been the same if the victim had been a Latino.
Defense attorneys Dennis McNerney and Duane T. Neary say they chose to allow Orange County Superior Court Judge Everett W. Dickey to decide the teen-agers’ innocence or guilt because they do not believe a jury could fairly assess the case.
“All (the jury) would have to hear is ‘Mexican’ and ‘gang member’ and it would all be over,” McNerney said outside of court.
Paer told the judge the incident began when teen-ager Sterling Breckenridge was leaving the park. He mistakenly believed he recognized some of the reputed gang members and asked them about a party later that night in San Juan Capistrano. That seemingly innocent comment set off the reputed gang members, whose rivals are from that area, Paer said.
“It’s our position this is a gang-related attack all starting from the mere mention of San Juan,” Paer told the judge. “These victims did not provoke anyone. Their biggest crime was being at that beach at that time.”
Breckenridge testified that one of the young men--possibly one of the defendants--quickly approached his car and punched him twice in the head. Breckenridge said that he then drove back to his friends in the parking lot and told them to leave because “a bunch of Mexicans” were starting trouble nearby.
When the teen-agers left in a caravan of three cars, the assailants began throwing rocks, bottles and other items at the cars, including the paint roller rod, which pierced Woods’ skull.
Paer has declined to say which of the six defendants threw the paint roller, but he told the judge during his opening remarks that he believes Penuelas and Bonilla aided and abetted Woods’ death because they participated in the assault. It will be up to Dickey to decide whether the youths are guilty of murder as charged, and if so, what degree is appropriate.
McNerney told the judge during his opening statement that the defendants believed they were about to be attacked--even believing they were going to be run over as the teen-agers drove out of the parking lot.
When it was over, the defendants exchanged “high fives” and laughed, Paer said.
“If there was any high-fiving, they had no idea Steve Woods was about to die,” McNerney said, calling the case an “extreme, horrible coincidence.”
“This is basically an accident, based on a misunderstanding by both sides that there was going to be a fight,” the defense attorney said. “It doesn’t amount to murder.”