Supporters of murder suspect Gladis Barreras Soto marched at the Ventura County Courthouse on Wednesday as prosecutors presented details of how the 38-year-old housewife allegedly fatally shot and dismembered her abusive husband.
Pedro Alba was shot once in the head Feb. 20 as he slept in the bedroom of the couple's small Ventura apartment. Soto was arrested three days later after she had confessed to killing her spouse, who had also used the name Pedro Alba Barragan.
Alba's legs, arms and head were cut off with an electric table saw. Soto told police she stuffed her husband's remains in plastic garbage bags, which she tried to burn in a dry riverbed. A transient saw her, called police and within days prosecutors filed a single charge of murder.
At her arraignment on Feb. 25, Soto pleaded not guilty to the murder charge.
Reducing that charge to manslaughter is the goal of defense attorneys and Soto's supporters. About a dozen friends came to Ventura County Superior Court on Wednesday for her preliminary hearing, some waving placards outside that read "Stop Domestic Violence."
Supporters contend Soto suffered from Battered Woman's Syndrome, and describe Alba's slaying as the violent conclusion of a marriage marred by infidelity, sexual abuse and physical beatings.
"We see only the way she killed him, but not why," said friend Elena Villagomez, one of the marchers. "She was suffering for 15 years."
During their marriage, according to a police detective who interviewed Soto, Alba allegedly threatened to kill Soto, beat her while she was pregnant, used drugs, and had sex with other women.
But Soto was not afraid for her life at the time she killed Alba, according to the Ventura police investigator who took her confession.
Det. Ralph Martinez, one of six witnesses called by the prosecution, interviewed Soto for more than four hours Feb. 23--first at her Ramona Street apartment and later at Ventura police headquarters.
Soto told him that on Feb. 19, she and Alba enjoyed a pleasant evening together at home with their five children. About 7 p.m., however, Alba dressed "very nicely" and told Soto he was leaving to meet his girlfriend. When Alba returned home at about 3 a.m., he demanded sex.
Soto refused her husband's advances, but said Alba tore off her shirt and underwear and forced her to have intercourse, Martinez testified, referring to notes from their interview.
Alba fell asleep, the detective said, and Soto went into the living room and cried for 30 minutes.
Sometime before 5 a.m., Soto got a .25-caliber semiautomatic pistol from the kitchen, went to the bedroom and placed the barrel an inch from Alba's temple. She fired a single gunshot, according to the detective.
Soto told Martinez she had bought the gun several days earlier from some unidentified men along Ventura Avenue as protection from her husband.
Soto stashed the weapon in a suitcase and dragged her husband's body into a closet, where it lay for about 18 hours. At 11 p.m., Soto put her children to sleep and prepared to dispose of Alba's corpse, Martinez said.
She dragged the body into a detached garage and tried to put it into her car, but it was too heavy. Soto told Martinez she then cut up his body with the saw and bagged the limbs and head.
Alba's torso was still too heavy to lift, so she hid it in a garment bag in the garage, and took the plastic trash bags to the Ventura River bottom.
It was there that transient Tommy Wright said he saw Soto lift five trash bags from her Chevy Nova and dump them under the Main Street bridge about 6 p.m. on Feb. 22.
Wright, the prosecution's first witness, identified Soto in court as the woman he saw that night, and described how she doused the bags with gasoline and set them on fire.
After Soto drove away, Wright said, he borrowed a fire extinguisher from a nearby RV park and walked into the riverbed to extinguish the flames.
"I noticed something that looked like a hand," Wright recalled. "I looked closer and noticed it was a human hand."
Ventura Police Det. Richard Cook, one of the first officers on the scene after Wright's call to police, said the remains were collected by the medical examiner and identified as those of Pedro Alba.
Cook searched the couple's apartment and garage, where officers found a .25-caliber gun, blood-stained mattress and a bloody electric saw.
Cook said he also noticed a bloody garment bag concealed in a corner of the garage. Unable to open its zipper, Cook cut the nylon bag with a knife. "I saw what appeared to be a human back."
Soto sat at the defense table during the hearing with her head hung low. She wore a maroon dress, and her curly dark hair fell around her pale face. At times, she wept.
She also faces a charge of assault with a deadly weapon for allegedly ramming her car into her husband's van a month before his death. At the time, Alba was parked at the Oxnard home of his girlfriend. Soto was free on bail in that case at the time she shot Alba.
Defense attorney Jorge Alvarado told reporters during a break that "at most" his client should have been charged with voluntary manslaughter. He said she deserves compassion.
Soto's hearing is scheduled to continue at 9 a.m. today before Superior Court Judge Charles W. Campbell Jr. The defense plans to call eight witnesses to discuss Alba's abusive nature, including a domestic violence arrest three years ago by Oxnard police. An expert in Battered Woman's Syndrome is also expected to take the stand.