Frank Carson has sat at defense tables in courtrooms awaiting a jury’s verdict numerous times, but none were as heavy with consequences as it was on Friday when the prominent defense attorney waited to hear if he was headed to prison for murder.
When the verdicts were read of not guilty for Carson and his co-defendants, Ceres brothers Baljit Athwal and Daljit Atwal, there was a collective sigh of relief from the three men and all their supporters in the packed Stanislaus County courtroom.
“Thank God that juries are smarter than judges,” an exuberant Carson said later as he left the Stanislaus County Superior Court building.
Carson and the two brothers who own the Pop N’ Cork stores in Turlock were facing criminal charges for the death of 26-year-old Turlock resident Korey Kauffman. The jury of 10 women and two men reached not guilty verdicts for all three defendants on charges of first- and second-degree murder and conspiracy to obstruct justice. The jury also came back with not guilty verdicts for the brothers on voluntary manslaughter charges.
The Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office built its case against Carson and the others on the claim that Carson was enraged over a series of thefts from his Turlock property, and masterminded a plan to catch one of the thieves and send a message to others. Their case claimed Carson orchestrated a criminal conspiracy that ultimately led to the death of Kauffman on March 31, 2012, and that thereafter the defendants worked to hide the death from authorities and thwart an investigation.
Ongoing thefts at Carson’s Ninth Street property in Turlock were at the heart of the case. Carson and his neighbor Michael Cooley had been engaged in an ongoing feud over thefts. Carson’s two properties on Ninth Street — one in the 800 block and one in the 900 block – are adjacent to a lot on Lander Avenue where Cooley was residing. A hole in the fence was used on more than one occasion for thieves to access Carson’s property, where he had a plethora of old automobiles, parts, tools, scrap metal, and trailers full of antiques, books, and household items. For some time, Carson suspected Cooley was responsible for the thefts, or was at least allowing others to access his property, possibly in exchange for some of the stolen merchandise. The two men had several heated encounters that led in police being called to the scene.
The last day Kauffman was seen alive was March 30, 2012. He visited the home of Cooley on Lander Avenue several times that day and night and watched as several irrigation pipes were laid out on Carson’s property, according to witness testimony. The prosecution said the pipes were set out as bait. On what ended up being his final departure, Kauffman said he had plans to go recycling around the corner and would be back later. He never returned and his disappearance prompted a multi-agency law enforcement investigation that became a homicide investigation when his remains were found in the Stanislaus National Forest by hunters.
In March 2014, investigators arrested Robert Lee Woody and charged him with Kauffman’s murder.
In August 2015, Carson, Atwal, Athwal and five others were arrested in connection to Kauffman’s death. Carson’s wife Georgia DeFilippo and former California Highway Patrol Officer Walter Wells were both charged with Kauffman’s murder, while Carson’s stepdaughter, Christina DeFilippo, and former CHP officers Eduardo Quintanar and Scott McFarlane were charged with conspiracy and being accessories in the death and cover-up.
At the conclusion of the preliminary hearing Judge Barbara Zuniga ruled there was not sufficient cause to hold Georgia DeFilippo, Christina DeFilippo, and Quintanar over for trial on the charges lodged against them. She did rule Wells should face trial on charges of conspiracy and acting as an accessory. His case is pending, as is McFarland’s, who was being tried separately.
Woody became a key component in the prosecution’s case. But his testimony proved troublesome for the prosecution because he had told so many various accounts related to Kauffman’s death and a gold mine for the defense. The defense strategy painted the district attorney’s office as on a mission of retribution against Carson because he had won several high-profile cases and ran for district attorney. They sought to show the jury that the case was built on a shaky foundation with career criminals and admitted liars at the core.
Prior to his arrest, Woody was recorded by his girlfriend detailing his involvement in the case.
In the recorded conversation Woody talks about the killing, stating in reference to Kauffman that “when he jumped over that f***ing fence that was his last jump.” He also states Kauffman was shot and claims he committed the killing on his own. He also describes feeding the remains to pigs.
A few weeks later Woody was arrested and charged with Kauffman’s murder. During an interview with investigators Woody disavows many of the statements he made in the recording, including the statements that he killed Kauffman.
When the other defendants were arrested in August 2015, Woody sat down with investigators again and told them a new account of Kauffman’s murder – that Baljit Athwal caught Kauffman on Carson’s property and that he was fighting with him when Woody and Daljit Atwal arrived. 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 helped move it to Stanislaus National Forest where it was dumped.
As part of his plea deal with the district attorney’s office, Woody will be sentenced to seven years and four months for his role in Kauffman’s death.
After the verdict was read and court adjourned, Carson and the two brothers celebrated outside with their numerous supporters.
“I thought it would never end,” said Georgia DeFilippo. “It’s like a black cloud has been lifted off of us.”
While one side was celebrating outside the courthouse, another side left it full of bitterness and outrage. Kauffman’s friends and family were heartbroken with the verdict and after the jury had left the courtroom, the emotional turmoil spilled out for some of them. As they left the courtroom some screamed out “murderer” and “you killed my baby brother.” One person yelled that the three men “had better not show their faces around Turlock again,” while others left with tears streaming down their faces.
The district attorney’s office committed volumes of money, resources and personnel to this case, which was led by Chief Deputy District Attorney Marlisa Ferreira.
“Although this was not the verdict we expected, we are proud of the extraordinary commitment shown by the jurors in hearing this trial that lasted over a year,” the district attorney’s office said in a released statement. “The District Attorney's Office prosecutes many murder cases each year against whatever defendant is indicated by the evidence, whomever that person is. In this case, a young man lost his life over a few dollars in scrap metal. The case deserved to be decided by the people in this community and we fully respect the jury's decision.”
The trial was expected to last six months, but instead went for 14 months. The case set a record for the longest preliminary hearing in Stanislaus County at 18 months and has seen an assortment of ancillary issues arise, including two current civil lawsuits. Georgia DeFilippo and Christina DeFilippo have filed a lawsuit against Stanislaus County, the cities of Ceres, Turlock and Modesto, and members of law enforcement and the district attorney’s office for violation of their civil rights, malicious prosecution, intentional infliction of emotional distress and defamation. Quintanar has also filed a similar lawsuit. Both were on hold pending the outcome of the criminal trial and are now expected to resume. DeFilippo said Carson could be joining her lawsuit or start his own.