Forensic experts' testimony takes center stage in 2nd day of Lufkin capital murder trial

Rafael Orta (Source: Angelina County Jail)
Rafael Orta (Source: Angelina County Jail)

LUFKIN, TX (KTRE) - Testimony from forensic experts and police detectives took center stage during the second day of Rafael Orta's capital murder in Angelina County's 159th Judicial District Court trial Tuesday morning.

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.

Dr. Tommy Brown, a forensic pathologist performed the autopsy on Bennett's body on Feb. 8, 2012. He told jurors that Bennett was shot twice, adding that the gunshot would near Bennett's armpit, just to the right of his sternum, was the shot that killed him.

Later in Tuesday morning's testimony, Jamie Jenkins, an LPD detective went back over cell phone records from Orta, Bennett, and Jesus Vela, who is a co-defendant in the case. He testified that there were 11 phone exchanges between the three men, and that Vela contacted Bennett seven times. Jenkins said that law enforcement officers used Cell Bright technology to capture text messages Vela sent to Bennett around 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 7, 2012.

Jurors also heard testimony from forensic scientists John Bean and Jennifer Duncan.

Bean told jurors that he was able to match the two shell casings found at Bennett's home on California Boulevard to the Colt .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol that police officers recovered from a creek near the initial crime scene after one of the suspects led them to that location.

In addition, Duncan told jurors that she tested the latex gloves found in various locations at or near Bennett's house, swabs from all five of the suspects, and other pieces of evidence from the crime scene, and said that she collected biological fluid from the gloves, swabs, and other evidence that may contain DNA.

Tuesday afternoon, one of Orta's co-defendants took the stand. Jesus Vela told jurors he rode his bike to Orta's house at 5:30 p.m., planning to smoke. Gerardo Renteria went with him, he said.

At the time of the murder, Vela had only known Orta for about two months. He told jurors that he didn't know Woodard at all and that he didn't know anyone else was going to be there.

Vela said that when Woodard and Osvaldo Hernandez showed up, they all got in Hernandez's truck. After that, the suspects went Orta's friend's house and picked up a rifle. Later, they drove to Alto, and Woodard got a pistol from a friend.

Before they went to Bennett's house, Vela testified that they stopped at a gas station, where he filled up the truck.

"They told me they would take me home if I gave them gas money," Vela said.

Vela testified that Orta had been using his phone to call Bennett. In addition, he told jurors that Orta, Woodard, and Hernandez were all wearing gloves and masks over their faces. Orta and Hernandez were carrying the weapons, according to Vela.

Woodard entered the residence, and Orta was standing next to Vela in the driveway when he heard an argument inside the house.

"I don't know what they were saying; there were just voices, and then I heard a gunshot," Vela said.

Later, Vela said he thought the robbery was a joke, but added he understood what they were doing was serious.

"Everything was serious," Vela said. "Orta was playing around pretending there were cops around. When I heard the gunshot, I thought maybe he had shot the gun in the air. It was serious the whole time, even when I saw him load up the rifle."

Defense Attorney Jerry Whiteker asked Vela why he didn't leave when he realized the situation was serious.

"[Orta] was happy; he was talking about jacking [Bennett] of his weed and money," Vela said. "I told him he was stupid, but I thought it was all a joke."

Vela said he did not go into the house when the murder took place, and as soon as he heard the first gunshot, he pulled the hood of his sweater over his head and took off running. He said he hid behind a car and pinned his back to the car door to shield himself from eyesight.

The day after the murder, Vela went to the police station and gave his testimony. He went back a couple days later to go over his testimony again. A few days later, police arrived at his house and arrested him.

Vela told jurors that the night of the murder, he did not see Orta make any phone calls to Bennett with his cell phone. He said Orta and Woodard only made phone calls from his (Vela's) cell phone. Whiteker asked him why his phone number is labeled as a blocked number to Bennett's phone in the phone records.

"I don't know," Vela said.

Whiteker stated that Vela's testimony was similar to the testimony given by his friend, Geraldo Renteria. He asked Vela if he was scared, and the witness replied, "Yes."

Under further cross examination, Whiteker asked Vela why he didn't leave. Vela said Orta told him that he could leave if he gave him (Orta) gas money. He added that he doesn't know why he didn't go into the gas station to use the ATM to get money.

Vela said Orta, Woodard, and Hernandez appeared calm the entire night. He told jurors Renteria looked frightened and uncomfortable.

When asked about the time frame that the men showed up to Bennett's house, Vela said he does not know because "he was stoned out his mind." He said he did not want to participate in the robbery and murder and just wanted to smoke marijuana.

After the afternoon recess, Lufkin Police Department Detective Ron Stubblefield was called to the stand as a witness. Summerfield was the primary investigator in the murder case.

Stubblefield said that during his first walk-through in Bennett's home, he found a brass .45-caliber shell casing inside the living room. He found another .45-caliber shell casing near the back door of the home. That shell was nickel, he said.

At the time of the murder, there were three people at Bennett's residence, including: Bennett, his girlfriend, and a small child. Bennett heard a knock on the backdoor and went to the door, Stubblefield said. There was one gunshot. His girlfriend took the child upstairs and hid. There was a second gunshot and then silence.

During his investigation, Stubblefield found marijuana all over the floor and kitchen cabinets as if there was a struggle.

The autopsy of Bennett's body revealed that one of the bullets went through Bennett's side at a lateral angle and lodged into his spine. Stubblefield said this gunshot would have incapacitated Bennett, but would not have killed him. The second bullet entered Bennett's body around the collarbone/armpit area and went downward through the heart and into the abdomen. Stubblefield said this bullet killed Bennett.

The first shot happened outside the residence when Bennett answered the door, and the second shot happened inside the kitchen, Stubblefield said.

"The first shot may have been accidental, but I think it was intentional," Stubblefield said.

Stubblefield clarified the five locations that the men went to the night of the murder. The first location was a home in the 2900 block of Freeman Street where Orta and Woodard picked up a rifle. The second location was at a Polks Pick-it-Up convenience store near Atkinson Drive where the men purchased fuel for the Trailblazer. Stubblefield said surveillance footage from this location shows Orta and Vela inside the store. The third location was at an apartment complex in Alto, Texas where they got a handgun. The fourth location was at another Polks gas station on 69 North across from the state school where they purchased gas for the vehicle again. Surveillance footage from this location shows only Vela inside the store. The fifth location was at Bennett's residence on California Boulevard, Summerfield said.

Stubblefield told jurors Hernandez, Woodard, Vela, and Renteria were all arrested several days after the murder. Orta wasn't arrested until later because "we couldn't find him," Stubblefield said.

"We had to have help from the United States Marshall Service, tracked his phones through GPS, and went by his house, "Stubblefield explained.

Orta finally turned himself in. He was not arrested that day.

Katrina Carswell, the prosecutor, showed jurors video of an hour-long interrogation of Rafael Orta by Stubblefield and Detective Travis Strickland at the Lufkin Police Department. In the video, Orta said the day Bennett was murdered, he spent the day getting high with other friends until 6 p.m. Around that time, Jesus Vela and Geraldo Renteria showed up at his house. A black male that lives in Orta's neighborhood showed up at the house as well. Orta said in the video that he doesn't know the male, but has smoked weed with him before. He goes by the nickname "J," Orta said.

Orta told the detectives that "J" said he wanted Orta to take him to Alto to get some money. In the video Orta said they later met up with Osvaldo Hernandez, who drove them to Alto. When asked by Stubblefieldd why he took someone he barely knows to Alto, Orta replied, "We were just trying to get some "Dro" [a slang term for weed] and get high."

In the video Orta continued his version of what happened on the night of Bennett's murder by saying Hernandez drove them to Bennett's house, so they could get some drugs. He said the black man went inside. They waited inside the car for about ten minutes, and then they heard gunshots.

Strickland interjected in the conversation on the video and stated that Orta was not telling the truth. In the video Strickland told him that if he does not tell him the truth, the police will have to assume the robbery and murder was Orta's decision. Orta replied, "I'm not going to cover for anyone. I'm not going to jail because of someone else."

Orta told detectives "J" and Osvaldo put on gloves that were in the car's glove compartment. Osvaldo went behind the car and grabbed a rifle out of the trunk. He said Osvaldo and "J" went to the back door of Bennett's house. Orta, Geraldo, and Jesus stayed inside the car. The three of them did not put gloves on. The three of them went outside of the car and stood there. They heard two gun shots. Hernandez returned to the car and the four of them decided to leave.

"I never went inside the house; I never saw the body," Orta said.

Orta said in the video that he knew they were going to rob Bennett, but he didn't participate. He just wanted to smoke marijuana.

Stubblefield told Orta that they found evidence in the driveway of the house indicating that another member of their group was involved in the murder.

"I didn't want to be apart of this," Orta said.

Orta says that "J" and Osvaldo wanted him to get out of the car with the rifle, and he refused. In the video, Summerfield asked Orta why he didn't leave.

"I didn't want to kill anyone," Orta said in the video. He added he was afraid they would kill him if he left.

During Monday's testimony, Strickland 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.

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

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.

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