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Carson, Athwals to stand trial for murder
Suspects Frank Carson, Daljit Athwal and Baljit Athwal - photo by Contributed to the Courier

It was a mixed bag for the prosecution and defense in the case of Turlock resident Korey Kauffman, as a judge ordered there was enough cause to hold three defendants over for trial on murder charges, while dismissing charges against other defendants.

Modesto defense attorney Frank Carson, his wife Georgia DeFilippo, former California Highway Patrol Officer Walter Wells, and brothers Baljit Athwal and Daljit Atwal, who own the Pop N' Cork stores in Turlock, have all been charged with murder for the death of Kauffman. Former CHP Officers Scott McFarlane and Eduardo Quintanar, and Carson's stepdaughter Christina DeFilippo have all been charged with being accessories after the fact and conspiracy. McFarlane and Quintanar are not part of the preliminary hearing. They all have entered not guilty pleas.

On Monday, Judge Barbara Zuniga ruled that there was enough cause to hold Carson, Baljit Athwal and Daljit Atwal over for trial on charges of first-degree murder and conspiracy to obstruct justice.

Ongoing thefts at Carson's Ninth Street property in Turlock has been at the very heart of this case. The district attorney's office claims that Carson and his neighbor Michael Cooley had been engaged in an ongoing feud over the thefts. Carson owns two properties on Ninth Street - one in the 800 block and one in the 900 block. The two lots, particularly the one in the 800 block, was full of cargo containers, old cars and parts, antiques and other assortment of items, including a double-decker bus. Carson had repeated confrontations with Cooley and accused him and others of stealing his property. In one incident, witnesses recalled hearing Carson state, "if I ever catch anyone in my backyard I will kill them and no one will ever find them."

Zuniga pointed to these confrontations as a key factor in her ruling, saying she struggled with the decision on whether or not Carson had shown an intent to kill.

"The evidence shows it was Mr. Carson who put this whole process in motion," Zuniga said. "He made threats to shoot him. Whether or not it is sufficient evidence to convict, we'll have to see."

Zuniga said she did not find the prosecution had proven the allegation of a special circumstance of lying in wait to kill in respect to Carson and the two brothers.

"There was no evidence that when the fight started there was an intent to kill Mr. Kauffman," Zuniga said in her ruling.

The prosecution had conceded earlier that a murder charge would not stand against Wells, but they were seeking to hold him over for trial on charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice and accessory.

"I have struggled with this one, and gone back and forth," Zuniga said.

The Stanislaus County District Attorney's Office's criminal complaint lists 17 overt acts they believe show evidence of an ongoing conspiracy to obstruct justice. In the 12th overt act, Wells, Quintanar and McFarlane are accused of obstructing justice by "directing co-conspirators in investigative techniques used by law enforcement in an effort to thwart the investigation." Zuniga said she found no merit in this claim.

"This brings us back to the phone records... which is the crux of the charges of accessory and obstruction of justice against Mr. Wells," Zuniga said.

Wells is accused of possessing Kauffman's cell phone between March 30, 2012 and April 16, 2012 and that he turned it off and on occasionally to derail the investigation. The prosecution presented evidence that on some occasions when Kauffman's phone was active, Wells' cell phone was in the same sector. Zuniga said she had to look at the evidence and ask if a reasonable person could have a suspicion that Wells was in possession of the phone and was driving around with it.

"I would have to say yes," Zuniga said.

She ordered the murder charge against Wells dismissed, but ruled there was enough cause to hold him over for trial on charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice and a new charge of conspiracy.

Georgia DeFilippo and Christina DeFilippo faired far better that the other defendants in the case. Zuniga ruled that there was insufficient evidence to hold the mother and daughter over on any of the charges lodged by the prosecution.

"There's no evidence there, even by the low standards of a preliminary hearing," Zuniga said.

Zuniga said that in making her decision she carefully considered the testimony from some of the prosecution's key witnesses and concluded that even though some of the details and timing of event might differ from one witness to another, they all described similar events, especially in regards to the confrontations involving Carson. She said she also gave careful consideration to the testimony of Robert Lee Woody.

Woody, who was the first to be arrested for Kauffman's killing, has agreed to a plea deal and has testified for the prosecution. During his testimony, Woody stated that Baljit Athwal caught Kauffman on Carson's property and that he was fighting with him when Woody and Daljit Atwal arrived at the Ninth Street property. Woody said Daljit Atwal joined in the fight and fatally shot Kauffman. Woody testified that he helped bury Kauffman's body in a field next to the Pop N' Cork on East Avenue in Turlock, and that later he helped move it and leave it in the Stanislaus National Forest.

"I spent a lot of time on Mr. Woody's testimony," Zuniga said.

Zuniga said there was no doubt in her mind that Woody's testimony had inconsistencies and she considered that he had even admitted to telling lies to the investigators, but in the end she felt his testimony was key.

"There is an overarching consistency to his testimony," Zuniga said.

Kauffman was last seen by Cooley on March 30, 2012 as he left the Lander Avenue home to go to a property on Ninth Street. The district attorney's office claims Kauffman was headed to Carson's property to take some irrigation pipes that had been left out as "bait" to catch the thieves.

Wells is currently out on bail and Carson and the two brothers were released on their own recognizance late last year after an issue arose regarding late discovery items. Chief Deputy District Attorney Marlisa Ferreria requested the three men be remanded back to custody, but Zuniga denied it.

"The action I took was to save this case from a dismissal by a review court because of your office's failure on discovery," Zuniga said of her release of the three defendants.

Zuniga also refused the prosecution's request to have the defendants wear GPS trackers.