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Testimony wraps up for the week in murder trial

JACKSON -- Testimony continued Friday in Jackson County District Court, where Juan Humberto Castillo-Alvarez is on trial for aiding and abetting the second-degree murder and kidnapping of 15-year-old Gregory Sky Erickson in 1997.

Erickson, who lived in Estherville, Iowa, was kidnapped from a friend's apartment in Spencer, Iowa, and his body later found in an abandoned farmhouse in Jackson County. Although Castillo-Alvarez was not the one who pulled the trigger and killed the teenager, he is accused of ordering the "hit" that ended Erickson's life.

In front of a jury of 10 women and four men, Minnesota Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank started the morning with more questions for Shawn Knakmuhs, the man who was once known as drug dealer Aurelio Ortiz's "muscle."

Knakmuhs had begun his testimony Thursday, explaining that Erickson had gone into debt to another dealer, Luis Lua, when some fronted marijuana was confiscated by police. Later, Erickson made an arrangement with Ortiz -- he was given $500 and was to obtain some methamphetamine for the dealer within a few days.

When Erickson didn't deliver, several of the men, Knakmuhs included, visited Erickson at a friend's apartment in Spencer, and let Erickson know he had one more day to come up with the money or the drugs. Erickson had given them partial payment in meth, but not enough.

Friday morning, Knakmuhs said they arrived at the apartment of Erickson's friend, Eric Sebasta, armed with several weapons, but after waiting for hours for Erickson to arrive, one man had to leave to go to work. Lua had him take all but one of the guns with him, keeping the Lorcin .380 handgun allegedly given to him by Castillo-Alvarez.

"What message were you there to convey?" Frank asked Knakmuhs.

"That he had made a mistake by not giving us what he owed," Knakmuhs replied.

When Erickson did arrive, Knakmuhs said, Lua, Ortiz and he brought the teen into the bedroom. Knakmuhs account of the discussion was less emotional than Sebasta's had been the day before, and he stated there was very little yelling or hitting. Erickson looked "a little scared," he said -- a very different description from Sebasta's characterization of terror and torture.

Knakmuhs did not accompany Lua and Ortiz when they left with Erickson, but after midnight, Lua contacted him and asked him to go with another man to the abandoned farmhouse and pick up shell casings. The two men drove to Jackson County and found the farmhouse and the body, but couldn't see any shells. They grabbed the Estherville recycling bag that had been put over Erickson's head while he was being transported in the truck of a car, then left.

The following night, Knakmuhs and Lua headed back to Jackson County, again after midnight. This time they had brought a can of gasoline. They poured gas around the house, then headed down to the basement to pour gas on Erickson's body. Knakmuhs testified that he personally lit the fuel while heading back up the steps. They saw the flash, he said, and took off.

"Did you go out there knowing that's what you were going to do?" Frank asked.

"Yes," Knakmuhs replied.

He spoke to Castillo-Alvarez two days after the murder, he said, before his own arrest.

"Why did you go talk to him?" Frank asked.

"Investigators were asking questions," he explained. "I asked him if he still had the gun. He told me it was up in the ceiling of the restaurant. The police had searched once and looked in the first ceiling, but they didn't find it then because it was in the second ceiling."

Under questioning by defense attorney Louis Kuchera, Knakmuhs admitted he had written a letter asking to testify against Castillo-Alvarez while he was still serving his 13-year term for his part in Erickson's death. He also said the guns brought to the apartment in Spencer were for protection, and not for the purpose of killing the teen.

"Did you ever talk to Lua about why killed (Erickson)?" Kuchera asked.

"He said he did it because he snapped," Knakmuhs stated.

Testimony was also heard from the Emmet County Sheriff, Mike Martens, who said that in 1996, he and several others executed a search warrant at Castillo-Alvarez's home and seized ammunition and a receipt from a sporting goods store for a .380 clip. Testimony earlier this week from another witness stated Lua had purchased a clip for the Lorcin .380 from a sporting goods store for Castillo-Alvarez.

Dr. Susan Roe, who did the forensic autopsy on Erickson's body in 1997, testified she found two bullets in the body -- one in the head and one in the lower body. The bullet wound to the back of the head caused his death, she stated.

"As soon as the bullet passed through the brain stem, he died," she said. "I was never able to find the entrance wound of the other bullet because of the fire injury and decomposition."

According to toxicology reports, she stated, Erickson had meth in his system when he died, but the only fractures other than those caused by the bullets were those from the heat of the fire.

The trial will resume Tuesday afternoon.