Erick Morales did not personally stab a 15-year-old Daly City classmate to death 12 years ago even though a childhood friend who sexually assaulted and stalked him for years claimed the Guatemalan secret police wanted the then-teenager to kill somebody or put his own family in jeopardy, a defense attorney told jurors Tuesday during opening statements in the man’s murder trial.
Instead, that friend Reynaldo Maldonado actually murdered Quetzlcoatl Alba and took a photo of Morales hunched over the body as “proof” for the alleged police gang back in Guatemala, attorney Tom Kelley said.
That photo and a locket with a different photo of Morales was found in Maldonado’s possession years later in Florida when Daly City police arrested him for the murder.
Morales, 32, is also charged with lying in wait which makes him eligible for life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted.
Morales and Maldonado grew up together in Guatemala with the latter, a few years older, sexually assaulting him from age 14 and stalking him, Kelley said.
When both teens ended up in Daly City, the aggressive behavior continued and Morales — 18 years old, in the country illegally and threatened by Maldonado — was eventually told by this older teen that the S2 gang, or secret police, wanted him to prove himself by committing murder, Kelley said.
Kelley’s remarks to jurors were the first public airing of Morales’ defense in Alba’s May 21, 2001, death. He and Maldonado both fled Daly City the month after the murder and Morales remained at large until 2009 when stopped by a New York state trooper on suspicion of driving while intoxicated. Maldonado’s defense during his trial last year painted Morales as the actual killer but offered no reason why either defendant wanted Alba dead. Maldonado claimed an earlier consensual relationship with Morales who he said killed Alba and then called him to clean up the scene and hide evidence.
Two days after Alba’s friends found his body in the Westlake Apartments storage room which teens used as a hangout, Morales told Daly City police he only knew the victim from school and they were “barely even friends,” said prosecutor Jeff Finigan.
But between May 1, 2001, and May 20, 2001, the two exchanged 57 phone calls, including a nearly three-minute conversation the night before Alba’s death, Finigan said.
During Maldonado’s trial, Finigan told jurors that Maldonado held Alba down while Morales stabbed him repeatedly in the neck, arms and torso. Finigan was not that specific during Tuesday’s opening statements but said it took both men to kill a struggling Alba who was bigger than each of them.
Alba was last spotted by a classmate with Morales about 10 a.m. leaving the school campus. Morales didn’t return to class until about 12:45 p.m. that day, Finigan said.
After his body was found, both defendants disappeared and the case grew cold until 2007 when a Florida friend of Maldonado contacted authorities to report he had confessed the murder and shared the photo of Morales and the body. The tipster also said the murder weapon, Morales’ bloody sweatshirt and Alba’s cellphone were buried in the yard of Morales’ childhood home on Miriam Street. Police dug up a tin can containing the items and extradited Maldonado from Florida. Morales followed two years later but the two were tried separately because of legal wrangling over Maldonado’s mental ability to stand trial.
Kelley didn’t dispute much of the evidence Finigan presented, such as the cellphone records, but said it is a matter of interpretation. He also said nearly all the DNA connects back to Maldonado and that jurors will hear testimony that the buried sweatshirt did not belong to his client.
Jurors deliberated three days before convicting Maldonado of murder but rejected the special allegation of lying in wait that would have negated the possibility of parole.
Maldonado and Morales are both in custody without bail. Maldonado will be sentenced Jan. 31.
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