Restaurant owner Felipe Arambula was killed last year during a hail of gunfire when two men broke into his upscale Ventura home, held his family captive and demanded money.
But whether those intruders were self-motivated robbers or hired guns sent to kidnap Arambula because he hadn't repaid a $50,000 debt is the question now facing a Ventura County jury in the Superior Court trial of Jose Vazquez.
The 38-year-old Camarillo resident is accused of murder, attempted kidnapping, burglary and other crimes in connection with Arambula's June 1998 slaying.
Though he was miles from the scene, prosecutors say Vazquez is legally responsible for Arambula's death because he masterminded the kidnapping scheme that took a deadly turn.
"The defendant set in motion, by his own will and his own conspiracy, to kidnap the victim," Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Simon said in opening statements Monday. "And as a result, Felipe Arambula met his death."
But defense attorney Steven Andrade told the jury that evidence presented in the coming weeks will show no solid link between his client and the break-in at Arambula's house.
Vazquez's name was never mentioned during the burglary, Andrade said, suggesting instead that the two intruders wanted to steal money Arambula typically brought home from his downtown Ventura restaurant.
"There is no doubt, no doubt at all, that those two are guilty of all of these offenses," Andrade said in his opening remarks, referring to co-defendants William David Hampton Jr., 20, and Manuel Vasquez, 21.
Manuel Vasquez, who is not related to the defendant, is believed to have fled the country after the shooting. Authorities said they tied the Santa Paula resident to the case because he dropped his mother's cellular phone at the scene.
Hampton, a Casitas Springs resident, confessed during a police interview two months after the crime to shooting Arambula.
He later waived his right to a jury trial and agreed to have a judge decide whether he was guilty based on evidence presented at a preliminary hearing.
Hampton is now serving a life prison sentence without the possibility of parole--the same punishment Jose Vazquez faces if found guilty of murder and related charges.
On Monday, Vazquez sat at the defense table dressed in a dark suit and tie, listening with the assistance of a Spanish-language interpreter to the opening statements and testimony by the first few witnesses.
In his opening remarks, Simon launched the prosecution's case with an account of how the various participants had met months before the slaying.
It started with a romantic affair between Arambula and Monica Donohoo, who months later married Vazquez. Donohoo was previously married to a wealthy Ventura card club owner, and she inherited the estate when he died, Simon said.
During the affair, Donohoo gave Arambula two $25,000 cashiers checks that he later deposited in his bank, the prosecutor said. In the ensuing months, the relationship ended and Donohoo married Vazquez.
Not long after the marriage, Vazquez began propositioning friends to kidnap "a man who owed his wife money," Simon said. One of those friends, he said, was Manuel Vasquez.
On June 13, 1998, Manuel Vasquez and Hampton broke into Arambula's home about 9 p.m. and held the victim's wife and two small children captive for nearly an hour, the prosecutor said.
Yazmin Arambula told police that the intruders promised not to hurt her, and explained that they were there for her husband. Simon said they also asked her, "Where's the money?"
While they waited for the restaurant owner to arrive, the assailants made three phone calls on the cellular phone found by police. The calls, Simon said, were all placed to the defendant's cellular phone number.
When Felipe Arambula came home, he encountered Hampton and Manuel Vasquez, a fight ensued, and Arambula was fatally shot, Simon said. The two men then fled, he said, and a week later Jose Vazquez purchased an airline ticket to San Antonio for Hampton.
In his opening statement, Andrade did not dispute the actions by Hampton and Manuel Vasquez, but told the jury that his client played no role in those tragic events.
Andrade acknowledged that Vazquez wanted to "talk" to Arambula about the money he believed the restaurant owner owed his wife. But the lawyer said the evidence will show that he was not party to any abduction scheme.
Instead, he said, testimony will reveal that for a year leading up to the slaying, Manuel Vasquez was working on a business proposal for an Oxnard dance club with Jose Vazquez, which he says explains their various meetings.
As for his client's actions after the slaying, Andrade told the jury that Jose Vazquez twice gave interviews with authorities and "steadfastly denied" any role in the break-in or subsequent shooting.
But he did help Hampton try to get out of state, Andrade said, telling the jury that his client was afraid he would be unfairly linked to the crime.
"He knew somebody had been killed, and he feared he'd be connected to it," Andrade said. He added that his client has no criminal record, and has been employed in construction and oil refinery jobs.
Testimony in the trial is scheduled to resume today before Judge Donald Coleman in Ventura County Superior Court.