Capital murder trial of 2nd of 5 suspects in Feb. shooting death gets underway

LUFKIN, TX (KTRE) - Testimony got underway Monday in the capital murder trial of the second of five suspects in the February shooting death of Darnell Bennett.

During Monday's testimony, the Lufkin Police detective said all five men played a role in Bennett's murder because they went to his house on California Boulevard intent on stealing marijuana from him.

Rafael Orta, 20, of Lufkin, is still being held in the Angelina County Jail on a charge of capital murder by terroristic threat. His bond has been set at $1 million.

Last February, Orta and four other suspects were arrested in connection to Bennett's murder. Lufkin Police detectives believe that the five men went to Bennett's house hoping to rob him of marijuana.

One of the other suspects, Jacob Woodard, admitted to shooting Bennett. In early November, an Angelina County jury found Woodard guilty of capital murder and sentenced him to life in prison.

The other co-defendants in the case include: Jesus Vela, Osvaldo Hernandez, and Gerardo Renteria. They will be tried at a later date.

The trial started with opening statements from defense attorney Jerry Whiteker and prosecutor Katrina Carswell.

Following the afternoon recess, Travis Strickland, a detective with the Lufkin Police Department, took the stand. He told jurors that he drew up the arrest warrants for all five suspects in the case.

The day after Bennett was killed, Jesus Vela, another of the suspects in the case, did a walk-through to show LPD detectives how everyone approached the house on Feb. 7, 2012, Strickland said. He told jurors that Vela told them their car was parked a few houses down from Bennett's house on California Boulevard.

All five suspects approached back of the house that faces Bowers Street.

"At this point, we knew the guys went over there to commit a robbery," Strickland said.

The LPD detective added that the suspects crouched down behind a Cadillac parked in the driveway. Strickland told jurors that Jacob Woodard, one of the other suspects in the case, didn't make it back to the vehicle. Once Bennett was shot, the other four suspects took off and left him there.

Strickland said Lufkin Police officers interviewed all the suspects except Woodard. Warrants were issued for their arrests, and the LPD detective added, "Mr. Orta was on the run for a substantial amount of time."

After explaining that the murder weapon was a Colt .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol, Strickland said once Woodard had been arrested, he led LPD officers down California Boulevard and to wooded area just off the street. There was a shirt hung up in a tree, "almost like a marker."

"We go into the woods a little ways," Strickland said. "We located another shirt and a hoodie jacket. One of my guys went into the creek and collected the weapon. The evidence trickled all the way into the creek itself."

Strickland told jurors that the murder weapon was found in about 6 or 7 inches.

Whiteker asked Strickland if he had determined that Woodard was in fact the shooter, and the detective said, "Yes." Later, Strickland testified that Woodard confessed to shooting the gun twice.

The LPD detective also testified that they compared the suspects' stories to see if there were any differences and said that all five of the suspects had a role in Bennett's murder. In addition, Strickland said that he believed Hernandez, another of the suspects, also had a gun on him the night of the murder.

'The shell casings came from the same weapon," Strickland said. "We later determined that there was one weapon used in the murder."

According to the accounts given by the suspects who were outside Bennett's house, the victim was still yelling after the first shot, and it was the second shot that killed him, Strickland said.

"All five of them decided to rob Mr. Bennett," Strickland said. "This is a murder that occurred during the robbery."

Before the attempted robbery, the suspects went to Alto pick up a weapon, Strickland said. He testified that Woodard used the gun, shot the gun, and disposed of it in the creek near California Boulevard.  Law enforcement officials did an ATF trace to locate the owner of the gun, but it was unsuccessful.

Another of the suspects, Reteria, took Strickland and other officers to an apartment complex in Alto where the suspects allegedly got the murder weapon. However, the woman there denied that a gun or anyone else was ever in her house.

One of the witnesses who took the stand Monday was 20-year-old Glen Allen Welcheck of Hudson. Welcheck explained that he had known Bennett for about two and a half years, adding that he had bought marijuana, from the man from time to time over the years.

"I've never seen him get into an argument with anyone," Welcheck said. "He was always real calm."

After a Crime Stoppers tip, Orta finally turned himself in, Strickland said.

On Feb. 7, 2012, he contacted Bennett by phone around 9 p.m. and then went to the man's home on California Boulevard. He told jurors that he walked through the fence and to Bennett's backdoor, where he knocked. He waited "for a good two minutes" and finally looked inside.

"I saw he was lying by a bunch of clothes, and he was shot," Welcheck said. "I ran back to the car and told my girlfriend (Sarah Southwood) he was dead."

He made the initial 911 call within 5 to 10 minutes of when he got to Bennett's house, he said. From the stand, Welcheck told jurors that he was scared.

"I've never seen a dead man lying there like that," Welcheck said said. "It scared me."

Officer Sean Alexander of the Lufkin Police Department said he was two blocks away on Grove when the 911 call came in through dispatch. He was the first LPD officer on the scene. He said Bennett's front door was open when he got there. Paramedics got there within a few minutes after he did, Alexander said.

At the scene, Alexander took pictures of the house. He saw a bullet casing under a coffee table in the living room.

"There were lots of pills on the ground, a large bag of marijuana, and the victim was lying on the ground when I entered the kitchen."

Alexander told jurors that he checked Bennett for a pulse, but couldn't find one. He noticed that the victim's front left pocket was turned inside out.

Nineteen-year-old Renteria, a co-defendant in Bennett's murder, took the stand later Monday afternoon. Renteria said that on Feb. 7, 2012, he and his childhood friend, Vela, met at his house around 5:30 p.m. Shortly afterward, Renteria and Vela got onto their bicycles and rode to 20-year-old Orta's home. Once they arrived, Orta's cousin showed up, and the four men went to a house off Highway 103 near Hearning to buy marijuana.

While Orta purchased the marijuana, Renteria and Vela waited inside the vehicle because Renteria said he did not want to buy weed, and he did not want to smoke the illegal substance that evening. They returned to Orta's house after they purchased the marijuana and that was when Jacob Woodard joined them. Renteria said he did not know Orta or Woodard before this evening, and was only there because his friend Vela knew the two men.

One of Orta's friend, Hernandez, showed up shortly after in a white Trailblazer, Renteria said. Around that time, Orta's cousin left, leaving Hernadez, Orta, Woodard, Vela, and Renteria. The five men gathered inside Hernandez's Trailblazer and drove to an unidentified home to buy a rifle. Renteria waited inside the car for five to 10 minutes before Woodard and Orta returned with a rifle.

The men then drove to a gas station in Alto and then proceeded to an apartment complex in Alto where Orta got out of the car and made a phone call to his uncle using Jesus Vela's cell phone Tenteria told jurors. A couple minutes later, Orta's uncle came down to the car and handed Orta a .45-caliber gun. Renteria said he knew the men had the intention to hurt someone once they got the guns. When asked why he didn't get out of the car at that time, Renteria said, "I was scared; they had a gun in the backseat."

Hernandez drove the four other men to Burnett's house where they then wrapped T-shirts around their faces as masks and put gloves on their hands. Renteria was told by Woodard to stay in the car. Renteria waited inside the car for nearly 10 minutes when he heard gun shots come from inside the home.

"That day, I didn't want anything to happen - I wanted to go home," Renteria said.

Whiteker asked Renteria several times why he didn't get out of the car. Renteria continued to respond he was scared and he didn't know why he didn't get out of the car.

Renteria told jurors that the reason he testified as a witness is because he has been promised something good will happen for him. He seemed unsure about what his charges are.

Lufkin Police Department Detective Jamie Jenkins took the stand after Renteria with phone record documentation found from an investigation of Bennett and Orta's phones. The records indicated that Bennett had two calls from Vela's cell phone the evening of his murder, along with seven calls from Orta.

Jenkins said it takes about thirty minutes to an hour to get phone records from AT&T. Phone records indicated that Bennett had received several phone calls from Vela but no text messages. Imaging records also showed that Bennett and Orta had corresponded through text message four times.Jenkins verified three of the four texts.

The imaging of the first text message was messed up, so the specific date and time is unclear. However, it was a text from Bennett to Orta and it, "Where are you at?" Det. Jenkins said he believes this text message was sent around 6 p.m.

The second text message from Orta to Bennett was at 6:22 p.m., and it read "I'm by 103 East ... I'll be there in a little."The third text message from Orta to Bennett was at 10:06 p.m., and it read, "Say…where you at?"

Det. Jenkins said the third text message is strange because Bennett was dead by the time the text was sent.

Jenkins testifed that on the day of the murder, he visited Bennett's body at the hospital. He said Bennett was declared dead as soon as he arrived qt the hospital. Bennett's body was lying on the emergency room bed when Jenkins arrived.

During his examination of Bennett, he found $1,530 dollars in between Bennett's legs, Jenkins told the jurors. When Jenkins asked a nurse about the cash, the nurse replied that the cash fell out of Bennett's jeans pockets while they were cutting the jeans off. They decided to stick the cash in between his legs until police arrived.

Jenkins took photographs of Bennett's body and the cash and waited for Bobby Wood to arrive with the body bag. After Bennett's body was collected, Detective Jenkins went to Bennett's house on California Boulevard.

The court is currently on break while Judge White looks over the documentation.

Jeremy Charvo, a crime scene technician with the Lufkin Police Department, brought pieces of evidence to the courtroom. In addition to the murder weapon, a Colt .45-caliber semiautomatic, he also brought several blue latex gloves found at or near the crime scene, a torn white T-shirt, shell casings, and bullets recovered from Bennett's vertebrae.

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