Opening statements in murder trial
JACKSON -- It may have taken several days to get through jury selection, but once the four-man, 10-woman jury was sworn in Tuesday morning, things progressed quickly in the trial of Juan Humberto Castillo-Alvarez, with opening statements and the state's first eight witnesses taking the stand on the first day.
Minnesota Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank told the jury they would hear a number of names during the course of the trial and hear from a number of the people involved. Frank painted a picture for the jury of a 15-year-old boy, Gregory Sky Erickson, who went by the name Sky, was kidnapped, beaten and murdered in June of 1997.
"In the course of this trial, you will hear what happened to Sky, and you'll also hear why it had everything to do with Mr. Castillo-Alvarez," Frank stated.
Castillo-Alvarez is charged with aiding and abetting in the second-degree murder of Sky, one count of intentional and one count of unintentional, and a count of aiding and abetting kidnapping.
"(Castillo-Alvarez) didn't pull the trigger," Frank told the jury. "What he did was order it."
The prosecution will try to prove that Sky's death was the result of a drug debt and a way to keep him quiet. The teenager, who lived in Estherville, Iowa, had been fronted a substantial amount of marijuana by a drug dealer, but was arrested during a traffic stop and his money and drugs were seized. Sky agreed to give the police information and charges were dropped. Frank said Sky's father, also named Gregory Erickson, moved Sky to Spencer, Iowa, then to Ames, Iowa, but when things quieted down, Sky returned to Estherville and returned to his old ways. There was another arrest, more drugs seized, and more information passed to authorities.
When another drug dealer fronted Sky money for some crank, he also gave Sky a deadline, Frank said. Some of the young men involved showed up to collect and demanded drugs and money. Sky gave them some of each and was given an extra day.
The following day, Frank said, the men tracked Sky down at a golf tournament. When he arrived at a friend's apartment later, they were waiting for him. He was threatened, pushed and shoved.
"One put a gun in Sky's mouth," Frank said.
Then there was talk they were going to take him to see "the man" in Estherville.
According to Frank, they took Sky with his hands tied to Castillo-Alvarez's restaurant, Mexico Lindo.
"If Sky's fate wasn't already sealed, it certainly was then," Frank stated.
Sky was taken out to a state park and beaten. Each of the men took turns beating the teenager, then, afraid they would get blood in the car, they put him in the trunk.
They brought him to an abandoned farmhouse in Jackson County, brought him down into the basement, used a red bandanna to gag him, then one man drew his Lorcin .380 handgun and shot Sky in the head.
"It severed his brainstem and he was probably dead before he hit the ground," Frank told the jury. "But that was not enough. Everyone had to shoot him."
That plan failed when the gun jammed, so the men left everything but the guns in the basement and left.
The next night, two of the men came back with gas and lit the body on fire, hoping the house would burn down.
Greg Erickson had been searching for his son, and reported Sky missing June 9.
On June 14, a man whose brother farmed the area around the farmhouse discovered the body.
Authorities began an investigation that, Frank said, led to paranoia about getting caught.
Sky's pager was thrown into a river, as was a gun. Another gun was buried in a field, bullets were thrown into the woods. But the murder weapon was not found until a search warrant was executed at Castillo-Alvarez's restaurant.
Up in the false ceiling, the handgun was recovered, but by then, Castillo-Alvarez had fled to Mexico.
Defense attorney Louis Kuchera admitted his client fled, but said it was out of fear, not guilt.
"Mr. Castillo-Alvarez has entered pleas of not guilty and denies any charges against him," Kuchera said. "He had no reason, no motive or desire to Gregory Sky Erickson killed. The bad drug debt was owed to Luis Lua, not to my client. And it was a minor drug debt, not an amount to see anyone killed over."
Kuchera said the argument that Castillo-Alvarez wanted to quiet Sky was not valid, as the teenager didn't get Castillo-Alvarez in any trouble.
His suppliers were Lua and a man named Aurelio Ortiz, and Sky had already developed a reputation as unreliable.
Even when a second deal was made for some crank, the dealers were leery, Kuchera claimed, so they showed him a gun as if to say they were not messing around.
"A couple of days pass and no one hears from him," Kuchera said. "They hear he's in Spencer, so they go looking and find him in a walk-in closet doing meth... Again, Sky hasn't been trustworthy or reliable."
Kuchera said a decision was made to "rough him up and leave him in the country, make him walk back."
"Mr. Castillo-Alvarez wasn't there," he added.
One of the men got an idea of his own, and the others never believed he would act on it, they just thought it was a scare tactic, Kuchera said.
When he found out what happened, he was "beside himself with disbelief," Kuchera said.
"The drug debt was not significant. There was no evidence Sky had worked with the police," Kuchera said. "(Castillo-Alvarez) got scared. He took off. He didn't order a shooting. He didn't have any motive."
Greg Erickson was the first to testify on the state's behalf, stating Sky was a caring, friendly person who loved his family and loved to play golf.
Erickson said he had no notion Sky was involved with drugs until the day police arrested the teen and seized marijuana and money.
The last time he saw his son alive, he said, was the day he brought Sky's golf clubs to the course in Spencer the day of the tournament.
Afterward he picked Sky up and they went to his parents' house, Erickson said, to celebrate his mother's birthday.
Two hours later, Sky asked if he could spend the evening in Spencer with friends.
Even though his son had not come home the two previous evenings, Erickson gave in.
The last thing he told his son was to stay away from the "yellow house" -- a place Sky had been found in previously in the company of a person involved in drugs.
Erickson left Sky at another house. It was the last time he saw his son alive.
When Sky was kidnapped, it was from the "yellow house."
Testimony was also heard from Sky's mother, who lived in Maryland at the time of Sky's death, from Brian Pell, who discovered the body in the Jackson County farmhouse, and from Ken Pell, who farmed the area surrounding the house.
Retired Jackson County deputy Paul Janning and retired Jackson County Sheriff Richard Seim also testified, giving their accounts of what had happened after they were contacted by the Pell brothers.
According to Janning, he was called to the same farm in 1990 when a Hispanic family lived in the house. At the time of the domestic dispute call, two of the male children were 9 and 11 years old.
After the investigation into Sky's death was complete, those same males were charged in connection to the case.