Another Covelo Blood Feud
by Bruce McEwen, May 4, 2016
A well-told lie is better than a thousand facts.
More criminal cases come out of Covelo than any other sector in Mendocino County, and a lot of the violence results from long-standing family feuds passed down through the generations to young folks who would otherwise get along in a neighborly and helpful fashion. And now, to go with the numerous ancient ones, new blood feuds, these among young Hispanic families who have moved into the historically blood-drenched Round Valley over the last past decade.
A young fellow named Francisco Escareno was hot-rodding around a trailer park on February 21, 2015, more than a year ago now. Tires were squealing, engine roaring. The kid was showing off his locomotive contempt for the health and welfare of all the people living in the trailer park until his dog was thrown out the back — or the poor creature had had enough and leaped out. Escareno's dog ran from young Escareno and hid at the home of David Sifuentes and family. Young Francisco — the Spanish diminutive is Paco — rather than simply ask for his dog back, went and got his uncle Jose, who brought along his gun to retrieve nephew Paco's dog. A gun to get a dog back?
Uncle Jose Escareno claimed his employer had ordered him to carry the gun as a precaution against marauding bears. The nature of Jose’s employment remained vague, his employer’s name given only as Richard, and the location of the job site unrevealed. Everybody understood the job was at a marijuana grow, and there are bears in the mountains surrounding Covelo, but no bears in Covelo itself, but there are plenty of gun bearers, you might say. This second time Paco’s truck came roaring into the trailer park, David Sifuentes dragged the (apparently reluctant) dog over to Paco and asked him to “please slow down in the trailer park because of the kids.”
“What fucking kids?” Paco snorted.
Escareno & Sifuentes
The next instant they were in hand-to-hand combat, rolling around on the ground. And here comes Uncle Jose running up with the gun, a 9mm Taurus semi-auto, locked and loaded. David’s brother, Eduardo Sifuentes, who lived nearby, saw that David was outnumbered 2-1 in the fight and also came running, although David was on top of Paco pounding hell out of him as Uncle Jose jumped around with his gun trying to get a clear shot at David. Unable to fire without endangering his nephew Paco, Uncle Jose slammed the gun down on David’s back and — Blam! — it went off. The bullet went through the open door of Paco’s pickup and into a nearby trailer. Fortunately, nobody was home.
When Uncle Jose hit David Sifuentes with the gun, it put his wrist in line with the slide, which came back and slammed into his wrist. Uncle Jose said on the stand that it hurt real bad when the deputy put the cuffs on him. But Uncle Jose's wrist had also prevented the slide from traveling back far enough to pick up another round from the magazine and feed it into the chamber. Therefore, when Uncle Jose tried to shoot Eduardo Sifuentes, who by then was punching him out too, all he got was the hollow click of the firing pin falling on an empty chamber.
Meanwhile, David, feeling the blow to his back and thinking he’d been shot from the report and the shock of the blow, had rolled off Paco, which enabled Paco to scramble to his feet and put the boots to David. Uncle Jose was still trying to shoot both the Sifuentes brothers, but hadn’t had a chance to recharge the pistol by manually pulling back the slide and racking another round into the chamber, a two-hand operation he couldn’t perform because he was trying to ward off blows from Eduardo Sifuentes. At this point the two Escarenos, perhaps recognizing they were about to dissolve in a rain of fists from the Sifuentes brothers, jumped in their truck and fled, but not before threatening to come back and kill both the Sifuentes boys.
This is what came out during the trial, and this is what the avuncular Jose was convicted of. But none of it was ever admitted to, and there was a good deal of dissembling by the Sifuentes brothers on the stand, as well. So, apparently there was some truth to the defense’s position that the Sifuentes brothers were liars and had somehow set Paco up for a thrashing. (Deserved or not).
Maybe a family feud existed before this incident, but the defense lawyers, Christopher Brooke for Jose Escraneo, and Macci Morse-Baldock for Francisco Escareno, appeared completely convinced of their clients’ innocence — which is all to the good; defense lawyers are supposed to believe in their clients innocence, and to paraphrase Dr. Swift, “the more they believe it themselves the more likely they are to convince others (the jurors) of it.”
The trial was well attended by family members of both sides and two of the most adorable babies you ever saw were present, one of them being the infant son of Uncle Jose, the other an infant girl of the Sifuentes family, and it was all too easy to foresee how these two will grow up in the kind of turbulence their families seem to enjoy.
Uncle Jose spent every lull in the proceedings holding and dandling his baby son. This must have had some salutary effect on the jurors, but it didn’t prevent them from returning guilty verdicts of attempted murder against Uncle Jose. The baby screamed as his papa was shackled and led away.
In the end it was sympathy the defense was asking for — begging for it, actually — and there was no more of the earlier pretending that their clients were innocent.
On cross-examination Chris Brooke asked David Sifuentes if the dog was injured.
David Sifuentes (through an interpreter): “It didn’t appear to be.”
Brooke: “Any blood or bleeding?”
Sifuentes: “No, none that I saw.”
Brooke: “Well, then, was the dog even whining?”
Sifuenties: “No, it was only when I dragged it [el perro] over to Paco, that el zarrillo began to whimper and howl.”
The dog was a — wait for it — pitbull, and like the gun, its purpose was pot-related. Originally bred to fight in dog pits, the breed would be virtually unknown in Mendocino County had it not been adopted by pot growers, and has since proliferated in this region to the point there seems to be no other.
When defense took their turn, Ms. Baldock said in her opening statements that the jurors had heard a lot of inconsistencies from the victims in this case, but now that they were about to put the accused, Jose Escareno, on the stand, “I hope you will be able to find the difference in the quality of the testimony about to come. Thank you.”
Escareno told his story, how he was expected to carry a firearm for his work because of bears, how he’d just got off work that February day and his nephew asked him to go with him to help find the dog. He said he had the gun in his hand, taking it in the house, but Paco was in a hurry to go look for the dog, so he just put it in his waistband instead, and off they went. Jose said he spotted the dog in the trailer park so they entered to go get it — and no-no, they were not driving fast, he insisted. He said Paco went to grab the dog and next thing he knew Paco and David were on the ground fighting.
“My nephew [Paco, 22], he’s just a little kid and this guy, an adult [David, 30], was on top of him with his knees pinning down my nephew’s shoulders.”
Chris Brooke: “Then what happened?”
Jose: “I grabbed the gun and tried to help my nephew.”
Brooke: “What did you do?”
Jose: “I said that’s enough and hit him on the back.”
Brooke. “Then what?”
Jose: “My nephew got up and we left.”
Brooke: “Did the gun go off when you hit David on the back?”
Brooke: “Did you fire it intentionally?”
Brooke: “Anything wrong with the gun?”
Jose: “No, I don’t think so.”
Brooke: “Did you try to reset the gun?”
Jose: “No… I told my nephew let’s go and got in the truck.”
Brooke: “What did you do with the gun after it went off?”
Jose: “I had it pointed down.”
Brooke: “Why did you tell Deputy [Sergio] Chora you had it in your waistband?”
Jose: “Because the handcuffs were hurting my wrist so much I was crying and I wanted him to loosen the handcuffs.”
Brooke: “Why was your wrist hurting?”
Jose: “From an old injury.”
More likely the injury was from the slide which, by the time of the arrest, would have begun to swell and grow painfully tender.
Brooke: “How many times did you pull the trigger?”
Jose: “Never, not even once.”
There was more of this mild taco salsa coming through the interpreter, but on cross it got really spicy.
Scott McMenomey picked up the pistol and strolled up to the witness stand with it.
McMenomey: “How many bears have you had to shoot with this gun?”
McMenomey: “Is this gun registered to you?”
Brooke: “Objection, your honor. If prosecution continues in this line of questioning, I’m going to instruct my client to invoke the Fifth Amendment.”
McMenomy: “Go ahead, counsel. Do that.”
Judge Henderson: “Let’s have a sidebar.”The lawyers went up to the side of the bench and discussed, no doubt, the niceties of waltzing around the underground economy. When they resumed, the legality of the gun and its purpose had been dropped.
McMenomey: “Didn’t you tell Deputy Charo the gun had jammed and wouldn’t fire after you struck David on the back?”
McMenomey: “Isn’t it true you told the deputy you pointed it at the ground and it wouldn’t fire because it was jammed?”
Jose: “No — I don’t remember.”
McMenomey: “And isn’t it further true that you told Charo you pointed the gun at Eduardo and told him to get back or you’d shoot him?”
Jose: “I don’t remember that.”
When the victims were saying they didn’t remember making contradictory or inconsistent statements, defense felt it was proof they were liars; but when their own guy did the same thing, well, that was because it was over a year ago, and details are hard to remember. This was the explanation Mr. Brooke gave in his closing, which was long and tedious — what his co-counsel called, “beating a dead horse.”
Ms. Baldock’s closing was in contrast refreshingly brief, and far better than her opening. It was her first closing argument in front of a jury and she took a deep breath:
“Mr. Brooke did much of my work for me, but I do represent Paco in Count 7, so [another deep breath] some of the things he went over may have seemed petty — like beating a dead horse — but our clients are very young, my client is only 22 and there was something going on between him and the Sifuentes brothers so when the dog fell out in the trailer park, he went and got his uncle to help him.
“When David came over and gave the dog back, somehow or other they started fighting and David got these injuries to his face, so I would assume Paco went like this, since David said he was kneed in the face while they were standing — but we don’t know.”
Ms. Baldock brought her hands down and simultaneously raised her knee, rather expertly, like maybe she had some experience in that move herself.
“We don’t know because David changed his testimony. Eduardo, then, tells a different story, too, so now, we just don’t know. But look at this…”
Baldock put up a picture of David in a clean white tee-shirt, a bruise under one eye, not a speck of blood anywhere.
“Where’s the great bodily injury, they’re charging my client with? The shirt is not even dirty, let alone bloody. He wasn’t on the ground, my client was.”
She put up another picture.
“And here’s Eduardo smiling — having just been threatened to be killed? They were fighting, and we’ve heard no testimony as to who started it. It was mutual combat, my client was on the ground, David on top, and Jose came to his nephew’s rescue.”
“And here’s the bruising on David’s back. See for yourselves, ladies and gentlemen, that’s no great bodily injury; bruising is mild to moderate injury.”
The jury didn’t return verdicts until the following day: Jose Escareno was found guilty on two counts of attempted murder, and two counts of criminal threats, despite — or maybe because of Mr. Brooke’s “beating a dead horse.” But Ms. Baldock’s efforts had been rewarded and her client, Francisco ‘Paco’ Escareno, was found guilty of a lesser crime than the felony assault with great bodily injury that the prosecution had hoped for — a misdemeanor assault.
By the time Jose Escareno gets out of prison, his son will be grown to at least a teenager, and will probably never forgive, let alone, forget it happened — not because Jose took a prison sentence to get a dog back — but because of the Sifuentes brothers, David and Eduardo.
* * *
DA’s Press release on convictions:
UKIAH, Fri., April 29. — A jury returned from its deliberations this afternoon with guilty verdicts against the two co-defendants — an uncle and his nephew — stemming from their attack on two brothers back on February 21, 2015.
In brief, an argument began over the nephew driving at a high rate of speed through a Covelo mobile home park, which then escalated into a fight. The uncle, who had been a passenger in the speeding vehicle, exited and removed a firearm from his waistband, striking one of the brothers who had complained about the speeding in the back with the weapon, which then fired into the wall of a neighboring residence. The uncle then pointed his firearm at both brothers and pulled the trigger several times while threatening to kill them. Thankfully, the firearm jammed and did not discharge.
The uncle, Jose Guadalupe Escareno, age 28, of Covelo, was convicted of two counts of attempted murder in the first degree, two counts of assault by means of force likely to produce great bodily injury, and two counts of criminal threats, all felonies. The jury also found true that the uncle was armed with and personally used a firearm during the course of each of the above felonies.
The nephew, Francisco Guadalupe Delgado Escareno, age 22, of Covelo, was found guilty of misdemeanor assault.
After the jury was thanked and excused, the uncle was ordered into custody and will be held at the Low Gap jail pending sentencing. The matter was referred to Adult Probation to conduct social studies and to make sentencing recommendations. The 17th of June at 2 o'clock in the afternoon was selected as the date for sentencing. Anybody interested in this matter is invited to attend that hearing.
The prosecutor who presented the case to the jury was Deputy District Attorney Scott McMenomey. The law enforcement agency that investigated the case was the Mendocino County Sheriff's Office. Mendocino County Superior Court Judge Richard Henderson presided over the four-day trial.
* * *
Willits News (no byline) press release on the original event.
A Covelo man was arrested Feb. 21 after threatening to kill two men at a Covelo mobile home park, according to the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office. MCSO deputies converged on the Covelo Mobile Home Park on Howard Street in Covelo around 1:40 p.m. on a report of a shooting.
The victims told deputies an argument started with the driver of a vehicle they say was speeding through the residential park. The argument with the unidentified driver escalated into a physical fight. A passenger from the vehicle, later identified by deputies as Jose Escareno, 27, of Covelo, got out of the vehicle and pulled a pistol from his waistband, striking one of the victims in the back with the weapon. The pistol then discharged into a wall of a neighboring residence.
Escareno then pointed the handgun at two of the victims and pulled the trigger several times while threatening to kill them. The pistol malfunctioned and did not discharge, according to deputies. The two victims were Eduardo Sifuentes, 33, and David Sifuentes, 38, both of Covelo.
A warden from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife stopped the suspected vehicle on Highway 162 in Covelo.
Deputies then seized two loaded handguns from the suspect’s vehicle, one of which matched the description provided by the witnesses. A spent pistol casing was also recovered at the mobile home park, which also matched the caliber of the handgun.
Escareno was placed under arrest and booked into the Mendocino County Jail on suspicion of attempted murder and was being held on $125,000 bail.