Serial rapist Vincent Sanchez chased a college student down a dark highway and fired an assault rifle into her car so he could drag her away and sexually assault her, a prosecutor told Ventura County jurors at Sanchez’s murder trial Monday.
Ventura County Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Lela Henke-Dobroth made the assertion during an opening statement in which she portrayed Sanchez as a brazen sexual predator who targeted 20-year-old Megan Barroso in the same way he did a dozen other women he has admitted attacking over five years.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Dee Corona said those women will tell jurors how Sanchez subdued them with knives and threats, and in some cases drove them to isolated spots where he forced them to dress up in other women’s underwear before raping them.
Corona called Sanchez “a peeper, prowler and a person who liked to creep around at night, hunting for sexual assault victims.”
Chief Deputy Public Defender Neil Quinn did not dispute the characterization and flatly told jurors they would find his client guilty of murder.
But he said prosecutors would be unable to prove that Sanchez, whom he described as a troubled 32-year-old man with an explosive temper, shot Barroso during an attempted rape and kidnapping, as alleged.
“We are not disputing that he is a rapist and a kidnapper, but not on this occasion,” Quinn said.
The distinction is important because the allegations of rape and kidnapping have allowed prosecutors to seek the death penalty.
Based on his earlier guilty pleas to rape charges, Sanchez already faces life in prison.
As the lawyers delivered their opening remarks, Sanchez, a Simi Valley resident and former construction worker, sat at the defense counsel table in a beige dress shirt, his black hair recently cropped short. His parents sat behind him in the courtroom.
A few seats away, Barroso’s father, Art Barroso, listened to the opening statements alongside family members and other supporters.
The trial in Ventura County Superior Court is expected to last at least six weeks as prosecutors present evidence of how Sanchez shot Barroso, raped seven other women and assaulted six other victims between 1996 and 2001.
Sanchez has pleaded guilty or no contest to criminal charges in connection with those cases and is awaiting sentencing.
He has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder, kidnapping and attempted rape in connection with the July 5, 2001, slaying of Barroso, a Moorpark College student. If convicted, he faces the death penalty or life in prison without parole.
Barroso was shot at the intersection of New Los Angeles Avenue and California 23 as she drove back to her Moorpark apartment from a friend’s house in Thousand Oaks. The time of her death is a matter of dispute.
Prosecutors contend that Sanchez, upset over a breakup with his longtime girlfriend, Luz LaFarga, drove to her sister’s house in Thousand Oaks in the early morning hours of July 5, spotted Barroso and followed her to Moorpark.
Henke-Dobroth told jurors that evidence will show Sanchez sideswiped Barroso’s car in an attempt to run her off the highway, then sped to the intersection before her and opened fire with an AK-47 to stop her before she turned toward home.
The prosecutor showed jurors a computer-animated video of two cars racing side by side. It also illustrated bullet paths and showed a cartoon Sanchez firing six shots into Barroso’s green Pontiac Sunfire. The blast of the animated gunshots rang through the courtroom, startling some spectators.
Prosecutors contend that Sanchez pulled Barroso from her bullet-riddled car, put her into his truck and drove to another location, possibly his house, where he attempted to rape her before she died.
“He kidnapped her for the purpose to rape,” Henke-Dobroth said.
But defense attorneys vigorously dispute that theory.
Quinn told jurors there is no direct evidence to suggest Barroso was sexually assaulted after being shot in the abdomen. Her partially clothed remains were found a month after her disappearance in a brush-filled ravine near Simi Valley. The medical examiner could not determine whether she had been sexually assaulted, because the body was so badly decomposed.
Evidence and testimony will show that the gunshots fired at Barroso’s car were intended to kill her, not merely to stop her for a kidnapping, Quinn said. He told jurors his emotionally unstable, intoxicated client took Barroso, unconscious and dying, and hid her body after the shooting.
“It was a murder, but a rage murder -- not a rape murder,” Quinn said.
During the coming weeks, prosecutors intend to elicit testimony from pathologists, a firearms expert, forensic scientists and an expert in car-accident reconstruction. But the “mountain of evidence” will not be enough to prove the attempted rape and kidnapping charges, Quinn said.
Among the disputed evidence will be thong panties found on Barroso’s body.
Barroso’s best friend is expected to testify that Barroso was wearing different underwear when she saw her change clothes before they left for a Fourth of July party. Prosecutors contend that Sanchez forced a mortally wounded Barroso to undress and put on the thong panties in the manner described by his other sex assault victims.
But Quinn told jurors the panties belonged to Barroso and matched two similar pairs found in her apartment.
Although Sanchez is not on trial for the rapes and assaults on the other women, ages 15 to 34, jurors will hear testimony from those victims and be presented with evidence of the defendant’s prior crimes.
The evidence will include what prosecutors described as a “backpack rape kit” that Sanchez carried while stalking his victims. It contained a ski mask, handcuffs, gloves and camera equipment used during some of the assaults.
Jurors will also see videotapes of least two rapes that Sanchez filmed, as well as video he filmed while watching his victims through their bedroom and kitchen windows.