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Trial begins for 2013 murder suspect; Defense denies accusation, says RPD ‘rushed’ evidence collection

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Defendant Steve Guardado looks out toward witness Miguel Barraza in Chaves County District Court Monday afternoon as he testifies in court. (Trevier Gonzalez Photo)

A man accused of murdering Stormy Joel Vargas through the means of a single gunshot to the head in October 2013 stood trial in Chaves County District Court Monday.

A 12-person jury was set by 2:15 p.m. Monday for 29-year-old Steve Gonzalez Guardado before District Judge Freddie J. Romero.

Guardado had been previously represented by Harry G. Wilcox Jr. and assistant public defender Debra Lautenschlager after he was placed under police custody following a traffic stop in Modesto, California.

According to a substitution of counsel form, in July 2016, Gary C. Mitchell, of Ruidoso, would instead defend Guardado.

After Judge Romero instructed the proceeding of the set five-day trial, the state of New Mexico gave its opening statement.

Deputy District Attorney Kristen Cartwright began after thanking members of the jury for their participation, and informed them the trial will include multiple names — and that every name might not have a face to go with it.

Cartwright then began to provide more context of a murder that had happened Oct. 23, 2013 — just two days before the murder of Vargas.

“A gentleman by the name of Victor Oaxaca was murdered by — it was later learned — Chris Trujillo,” Cartwright said. “How this all comes into play with this case is that Victor was best friends with Stormy. And when I say ‘Stormy,’ I’m referring to Stormy Vargas.”

Cartwright explained Oaxaca and Vargas were seen everywhere together, even that the two used to play basketball together at New Mexico Military Institute.

“The night that Victor died, Stormy was with Victor — Stormy was in the car that took Victor to the hospital; that was on a Wednesday,” Cartwright said. “On a Thursday, Stormy goes to pay his respects to the Oaxaca family and tells (them) about what happened the night before.”

Cartwright said, after Vargas told the Oaxaca family what had happened, the situation got “a little crazy.”

“Stormy’s story wasn’t believed by a lot of people, and that’s where blame and revenge come into play,” she said. “The defendant blamed Stormy for Victor’s death. He didn’t understand why Victor died that night, and he was angry.”

The defense began his opening by being more direct.

“Steve Guardado did not commit this murder — did not shoot Stormy Vargas, and did not go to Stormy Vargas’ house,” Mitchell said. “So, let’s talk about what we do know — from the facts that will be presented to you.”

Mitchell explained to the jury key parts of the case centered on a 911 call made Oct. 25, 2013, the day Vargas was killed, the way the RPD first handled the scene and a sample of saliva authorities found at the crime scene.

“One of the two people inside the house that gives a description of the shooter as being 5’10 to 5’11, having a gray hoodie or shirt like (it), no hat on. Black hair — not too long, somewhere around 180 to 175. Not a big guy. Not a thin guy. Average size guy — no beard. That’s the description he sees. He couldn’t identify the person other than that.”

Mitchell continued, adding that some of the members of the RPD have been “in the business for a lot of years.”

“At the scene, the commander tells them, ‘rush this, so we don’t lose any evidence,’ and they began to collect evidence that they find as quickly as possible,” he said.

Mitchell went over pieces of the evidence found, noting the 9 mm shell casing found was a common brand.

“But right close there, within a short distance, you’ll see a police marker with a ‘D’ on it,” he said. “And when you get a close-up of that, it’s spit. Saliva.”

Mitchell said after the saliva sample was tested, it was determined the DNA found was not his client’s.

“There’s no dispute about this, it came back as the DNA of Miguel Barraza,” he said. “So they take that, and the description that the detectives obtained that night (and found that it) does not match Steven Guardado.

“Because at the time, he was right around 280 to 300 pounds. He was large — he’s lost a lot of weight since 2013.”

The defense attorney also made a mention to the importance of Coordinated Universal Time.

RPD patrol supervisor Kim Northcutt, who handled the Victor Oaxaca homicide case, was the first to testify.

The sergeant confirmed with the prosecution Vargas was not connected to Oaxaca’s death, which had happened at The Variety Lounge Oct. 23.

“Through my investigation, (it) showed that (Vargas) didn’t play any role in that. Any part of that.”

The defense asked Northcutt whether he had learned the Trujillos were related to the Oaxacas or Vargas from his investigation. The sergeant replied with, no, not to his knowledge.

Northcutt was last asked if he was part of another investigation that had happened two weeks prior to the incident in which Vargas’ house was shot at. He stated he was not.

Miguel Barraza, 33, was the second to testify. He was asked about the time when he visited the Oaxaca residence on Oct. 25, 2013.

Barraza stated he went to the property with his girlfriend Lisa. He remembers seeing family, friends and people he didn’t know inside and outside the area drinking and possibly smoking marijuana.

Barraza told Deputy District Attorney Michael Thomas he remembers seeing the defendant, Guardado, at the Oaxaca residence and identified him in court.

Barraza stated Guardado had eventually left in a black Chrysler but didn’t recall actually talking with him.

Mitchell questioned Barraza’s height, weight, hair and dress at the time of the incident, trying to see if he met the description originally given by the 911 caller. The two did not match.

Throughout his responses, Barraza would often not give eye contact. He stated the saliva could potentially have been from him smoking marijuana, but didn’t recall spitting at the residence. He also said he had never seen Guardado with a gun.

Twenty-four photographs of the crime scene were admitted as evidence.

Barraza stated he left the residence with Lisa. He was unable to remember the vehicle he drove but stated he did not drive a black Chrysler. After news of Vargas getting shot, Barraza said everyone at the party started to leave, and he went to the hospital with Lisa.

Barraza was also asked by the prosecution if he had first-hand knowledge of who killed Stormy Vargas, or if he had killed him. He stated he did not to both questions.

Recess for the trial was called by Romero later Monday afternoon and was set to resume Tuesday morning.

Multimedia-Crime reporter Trevier Gonzalez can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 301, or at breakingnews@rdrnews.com.