Lufkin slaying suspects plead guilty to lesser included charge, stand trial for murder

Gerardo Renteria (Source: Angelina Country Jail)
Gerardo Renteria (Source: Angelina Country Jail)

LUFKIN, TX (KTRE) - Testimony got underway Wednesday morning in the jury trial for the last two suspects in the Feb. 7, 2012 shooting death of Darnell Bennett. Jesus Vela and Gerardo Renteria stood trial at the same time.

Last February, Vela, Renteria, Osvaldo Hernandez, Rafael Orta, and Jacob Woodard 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.

Wednesday, Jesus Vela and Gerardo Renteria pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide and not guilty to murder.

In her opening statements, prosecutor Katrina Carswell explained to jurors what happened the night of the shooting. Carswell told the jury that Vela and Renteria had been friends for years and rode to Orta's house on their bikes to hang out and smoke.

Jacob Woodard, a man the two defendants had never met, walked to Orta's house earlier that day. Carswell said that the evidence shows Woodard and Orta needed money and decided to rob Bennett.

Carswell told jurors that no one had a car and Orta called Osvaldo Hernandez to give them a ride.The five men got in Hernandez's white Chevrolet Trailblazer and drove to east Lufkin to get a rifle from a friend of Hernandez.

"They said we were going to riding around, that we weregoing to get more weed and we ended up by the paper mill," said Vela

Carswell told jurors that Woodard wasn't satisfied with a rifle, and they drove to Alto to get a handgun from a friend of Woodard's.

"I wanted to gohome, I knew something bad might happen when they got a gun," saidRenteria.

The evidence shows that Orta made calls to Bennett on Vela's phone, to let Bennett know that they were at his house. Carswell told jurors that although Vela was one of the four men who approached the house, Woodard and Hernandez were carrying the weapons. Renteria, who stayed behind, was the planned getaway driver.

Carswell identified Woodard, and Orta as planners in the crime and Hernandez provided a vehicle and a weapon. The two defendants came forward to the police willingly and helped in other cases, the prosecutor said.

"They didn't take steps to get out of the situation, but there is little evidence that shows they actually participated beyond the fact that they were there," Carswell said.

Vela's defense attorney, Al Charanza, told jurors Vela came forward willingly and gave police information that led to three other arrests.

"This case is about criminal responsibility, Vela voluntarily pled guilty to criminally negligent homicide and not guilty to murder, that is a different criminal responsibility," Charanza said.

Charanza said Vela couldn't get out of the situation, and he gave Hernandez money for gas thinking he would take them home.

"Just being there doesn't make you a party of that crime," Charanza said.

Renteria's defense attorney, John Tatum, said that Renteria didn't know Woodard and Hernandez, and when he rode to Orta's house, he didn't know a murder would take place.

Tatum said that Renteria didn't hear about guns until he got into the car, and he also asked to go home. Like Charanza, Tatum told jurors that Renteria also worked with law enforcement officials to get them the information they needed.

Detective Ron Stubblefield, who was at the crime scene the night of the murder, was the first witness to take the stand. At the crime scene, there was blood on the kitchen floor and drugs on the floor and countertops, he said.

During an interview with Bennett's girlfriend, she told officers that Bennett had received a blocked call. Stubblefield told jurors that moments later Bennett went to the back door and asked, "Why are you calling me from a blocked number?"

Officers traced the blocked phone call back to Vela's phone.

Stubblefield testified that after officers set up surveillance outside of Vela's house, they observed Renteria, Vela and Vela's father get into a vehicle. Stubblefield told the jury the men were going to law enforcement to turn themselves in.

Vela and Renteria were the first suspects interviewed.

"They all stated they went to rob Bennett; the shooting was never intended, it was just something that happened during the course of the robbery," Stubblefield said.

Stubblefield told the jury Vela led officers where the handgun was stashed. He also testified that at one point the men stopped for gas and at the station there was a uniformed officer on duty. In interviews, both defendants both said they didn't leave because they were scared.

Stubblefield told jurors that there is no hard evidence connecting the two defendants to the crime scene.

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