As the preliminary hearing in the murder case of Turlock resident Korey Kauffman prepares to go into its 15th month, the judge presiding over the case ordered three defendants released from jail on their own recognizance because of a potential new delay.
Modesto defense attorney Frank Carson and Ceres brothers Baljit Athwal and Daljit Athwal, who own the Pop N' Cork stores in Turlock, were released Thursday night from custody. The three men have been held at the Stanislaus County Jail without bail since their arrests in August 2015.
Judge Barbara Zuniga ordered the three released after the Stanislaus County District Attorney's Office revealed they potentially might have found more items not previously released to the defense during discovery.
"While auditing discovery in this case, one of our investigators located some audio recordings that may or may not have been provided within the previous 1,000 disks discovered to the defense," said District Attorney spokesman Deputy District Attorney John Goold. "There was no time to confirm whether these recordings had been previously disclosed or not. Out of an abundance of caution, we raised that concern with the court this morning and copies were provided to defense counsel.
"Due to the delay surrounding this issue, this afternoon [Thursday] the judge felt compelled to release the in-custody defendants on their own recognizance," continued Goold. "They were ordered to surrender their passports, not contact each other, and be searchable for weapons."
Goold stated that Zuniga stressed the order to release the defendants was done to protect the record on appeal and "not a sanction for late discovery."
The release follows a previous order to reduce the bail amount for Walter Wells, a former California Highway Patrol officer who was also arrested for Kauffman's murder. Wells was charged with murder and conspiracy when arrested, but it is expected the prosecution will not proceed with the murder charge at the conclusion of the preliminary hearing.
The preliminary hearing is being held to determine if the prosecution has presented enough cause to hold the accused over for trial on the charges that have been lodged.
Currently, the only defendant in custody is Robert Lee Woody, who was the first to be arrested for Kauffman's killing. Woody agreed to a plea deal after the arrests of the other suspects in August 2015 and testified against them earlier this year.
In addition to Carson, Athwal, Atwal, and Wells, the district attorney has accused Carson's wife, Georgia DeFilippo of murder. DeFilippo has been out on bail since the early days of the preliminary hearing. Former CHP Officers Scott McFarlane, 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.
The District Attorney's office claims Carson was angry over thefts at his property on Ninth Street that he believed were being committed by his Lander Avenue neighbor Michael Cooley. Their theory of the case has Carson - the one-time candidate for district attorney - serving as the mastermind of a criminal conspiracy that ultimately led to the death of Kauffman on March 31, 2012.
According to the district attorney's case, Carson and the eight others charged in connection with the murder, worked to hide the death from authorities and thwart any investigation.
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.
Woody has stated that Athwal caught Kauffman on Carson's property and that he was fighting with him when Woody and Atwal arrived at the Ninth Street property. Woody said Atwal joined in the fight and that the two were beating Kauffman, who was on the ground, trying to get away, "like a cat trying to get away from a dog."
Woody stated he tried to break up the fight and when he was unsuccessful he turned to leave, which is when he heard a shot. When he turned back around Kauffman was dead.
Woody testified that he came up with the idea of moving the body and that he was helping the brothers "because he was involved in it at that point."
Kauffman's remains were wrapped in a tarp and buried in a shallow grave in a side yard next to the Pop N' Cork on East Avenue, according to Woody. He also testified the toes and fingers were cut off and placed in a black bag that was buried with the body.
Woody testified that Athwal said they had to move the body after investigators came to the store asking about Kauffman's disappearance. Woody said he dug up the remains and he and Athwal and Woody's girlfriend (who is now deceased) put it in the back of Athwal's truck and drove it to the mountains. Woody said he didn't know at the time where they were headed. He stated Kauffman's remains were left in an area away from a dirt road and that the fingers and toes were scattered around in the brush.
In August 2013 hunters in Stanislaus County Forest in Mariposa County found Kauffman's skull. Later in the investigation Woody directed investigators to the spot where Kauffman's remains were left.
The preliminary hearing is set to resume Jan. 3 with a status conference.